BAGHDAD (AP) — Syrian activists say the Islamic State militant group has captured some MiG fighter jets and is test-flying the warplanes in Syria with the help of former Iraqi air force pilots.
Friday's account by the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights could not be independently confirmed, and U.S. officials said they had no reports of the militants flying jets in support of their fighters in Iraq and Syria.
The Observatory said the planes, seen flying over the Jarrah air base in the eastern countryside of Syria's Aleppo province this week, are believed to be of the MiG-21 and MiG-23 variety. Rami Abdurrahman, director of the Observatory, said the planes have been flying at a low altitude, "apparently to avoid being detected by Syrian military radar in the area."
He described the flights as a "moral victory" for the Islamic State, saying "the jets could not fly much further without being knocked down" by the U.S. led-coalition that is conducting airstrikes in Iraq and Syria.
The group is known to have seized fighter jets from at least one air base it captured from the Syrian army in Raqqa province earlier this year. Militant websites had posted photos of IS fighters with the warplanes, but it was unclear if they were operational.
Abdurrahman said Islamic State members were being trained by Iraqi officers who had joined the group and who were once pilots under Saddam Hussein.
The Jarrah air base was captured by Islamic groups including al-Qaida's Syrian branch, the Nusra Front, in early 2013. It was taken by Islamic State militants in January 2014.
Gen. Lloyd Austin, the top U.S. commander for the Middle East, said he has no operational reports of IS militants flying jets in support of their forces. Austin, the head of the U.S. Central Command who is directing the fight in Iraq and Syria, told Pentagon reporters he also has no information about Iraqi pilots defecting to IS.
An Iraqi intelligence official said the government is aware of several ex-Iraqi military officers going to Syria to train militants with the Islamic State group. He added the militants acquired warplanes from al-Tabaqa air base in Syria but did not get any when they toppled the Iraqi military in Mosul. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media.
If IS fighters learn how to use such aircraft, they would become vulnerable to both Syrian and Iraqi MANPADS — man-portable-air-defense-systems — and coalition fighters, said Richard Brennan, an Iraq expert at RAND Corporation and former U.S. Defense Department policymaker.
"The possession of these aircrafts will have a minimal military impact — however, they will provide a significant psychological boost to IS, especially if IS can find a way to periodically employ them against military or civilian targets," Brennan said.
The report on the warplanes came as the Islamic State battled for two strategic towns hundreds of miles apart in Iraq and Syria.
The group pressed an offensive on the Iraqi city of Ramadi, the capital of the vast Sunni-dominated Anbar province located 115 kilometers (70 miles) west of Baghdad. Ramadi has, for the most part, remained in the hands of Iraqi military forces since the group first pushed into Anbar province in December 2013.
The government in Baghdad imposed a curfew Friday in Ramadi as Iraqi forces moved to eliminate pockets of resistance there, said Sabah Karhout, the chairman of the Anbar provincial council.
Capturing Ramadi would have a ripple effect throughout the Anbar, since controlling the provincial capital would ultimately paralyze the surrounding areas and help the militant group secure yet another corridor with Syria for the passage of fighters, munitions and field artillery to move between both countries.
Major operations also are underway in Iraq's Salahuddin province to retake key areas in between the city of Tikrit, which is mostly controlled by the Sunni militant group, and the town of Beiji, home to Iraq's largest oil refinery. Two Iraqi military officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to brief the media, said the operation was receiving significant coalition air support.
In the past week, the U.S. Central Command has reported only three airstrikes in Anbar province: one of them near Ramadi, one near the captured town of Hit and one near the Haditha Dam.
By contrast, at least 60 coalition airstrikes were launched this week in Syria around the Kurdish town of Kobani to try to scale back the militants' onslaught near the border with Turkey.
The fierce fighting for Kobani has allowed the coalition to take out large numbers of Islamic State militants, Austin said, restricting the fighters' freedom of movement and communications.
Clashes between Kurdish fighters and Islamic State militants continued in Kobani. A Kurdish official said Kurdish fighters have begun sharing information with the coalition to coordinate strikes against IS militants there.
The admission could further complicate relations between Washington and Ankara, which views the main Syrian Kurdish militia with suspicion because of its links to the Kurdish PKK insurgent group.
"There is direct coordination between Kurdish and American coalition forces," Nawaf Khalil, spokesman for the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, told The Associated Press. "That's no secret. It began about a week ago," he said.
The party's armed wing, known as the People's Protection Units or YPG, has been struggling to defend Kobani — also known as Ayn Arab — against the Islamic State group despite dozens of coalition airstrikes against the extremists.
Khalil said Kurdish fighters provided "correct and credible intelligence" early on, building trust with the coalition. There was no immediate comment from U.S. military officials.
The battle for Kobani has emerged as a key test for the coalition air campaign.
Turkey has ground forces and tanks just over the border but has declined to intervene. It views the YPG as an extension of the PKK, which waged a long insurgency in Turkey and is designated a terrorist group by the U.S. and NATO.
Khalil's acknowledgement of coordination came after State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Thursday that U.S. officials had met with members of the Syrian Kurdish party for the first time.
Khalil said the meeting took place last week in Paris and that it wasn't the first time. "The contact isn't new," he said, "but the admission of it is."
State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf on Friday confirmed "some intelligence and information sharing going on" between the U.S. and Kurdish fighters in Syria. She would not rule out future U.S. arms transfers to the Kurdish fighters but said, "Obviously, that's not something we're doing."
She said she was not aware of other direct talks between the U.S. and the PYD leaders before the Kurdish group's leader, Saleh Muslim, met Sunday with Daniel Rubinstein, the State Department's special envoy for Syria.
Harf also said the U.S. is aware of reports that the Islamic State has captured fighter jets, but could not confirm whether they are accurate.
A Turkish government official said Turkey did not have a problem with the U.S. meeting with PYD officials, saying Turkey has been meeting with Saleh Muslim "long before the United States."
The official said, however, that Turkey had reservations about arms transfers to "terror organizations or their extensions," saying there is no guarantee that these arms won't "one day be pointed at us." Turkey was pressing for the training and equipping of the Syrian opposition, which he said is formally recognized by more than 100 countries.
On the sharing of information between the YPG and the coalition: "Turkey is part of the coalition against ISIL. We don't oppose such initiatives that would help stave off the threat posed by ISIL."
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to make public statements.
Karam reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Diaa Hadid in Beirut, Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad and Lolita C. Baldor and Lara Jakes in Washington contributed to this report.