The Islamic State is close to cementing its control in the eastern Syrian province of Raqqah today after it overran the Tabqa military airport. The airbase is the last Syrian military stronghold in Raqqah.
Islamic State fighters “took control over wide areas of the airbase” after launching a massed assault earlier today, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. A number of Syrian soldiers and allied “militiamen” withdrew “towards Athraya Area” after heavy fighting. Syrian warplanes attacked Islamic State fighters inside and outside of the airbase, indicating the military has lost control of the facility.
This Islamic State removed a nearby checkpoint to allow Syrian forces “an attempt to give the regime forces a path in order to retreat from the airbase and to avoid the violent clashes with them inside the airbase,” the Observatory later reported. “The warplanes that were in the airbase of [Tabqa] have been towed to another airbase in the Syrian Badeya and to the Military Airport of Deir Ezzor.”
The jihadists “took control” of the base “almost completely,” the Observatory said in a later update.
The Islamic State took heavy casualties during the fighting. According to the Observatory, over 100 Islamic State fighters were killed and 300 more were wounded. Twenty-five Syrian soldiers were killed and dozens more were wounded.
The city of Tabqa, which is just north of the city, and the nearby Thawra Dam have been under the control of Islamist forces since February 2013. The Al Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant, al Qaeda’s branch in Syria, seized the city and dam, and control was transferred to the Islamic State sometime after the two Islamist groups split over the dispute over who controlled the jihad in Syria.
The Islamic State currently controls the city of Raqqah, the provincial capital and its de facto capital in Syria, and other towns and cities along the Euphrates River.
Earlier this month, the Islamic State defeated the 93rd Brigade of the Syrian Army. The unit was deployed from Idlib province to Raqqah in 2012 to reinforce the military’s weakening position in the province. On Aug. 23, the Islamic State published a video of “its brutal execution of Syrian soldiers” captured during the fighting, according to the SITE Intelligence Group. One soldier was beheaded.
The Islamic State “had also reported the killing of an IS [Islamic State] media member, Abu Usama al Ansari, during the operation,” SITE reported. “Footage shows one of the suicide bombers, Abu Hajer al Jazrawi, reading his will, and shows fighters storming the area and killing the soldiers it encounters.” Based on his name, the suicide bomber appears to be a Saudi.
The Islamic State controls most of eastern Syria and has recently advanced further into Aleppo province, where it is threatening the Al Nusrah Front as well as the allied Islamic Front. In Iraq, the jihadist group controls much of Anbar, Ninewa, Salahaddin, and Diyala provinces, as well as areas in northern Babil.
The US began launching airstrikes against the Islamic State in the northern areas of Ninewa after ignoring pleas by the Iraqi government to help halt the advance of the jihadist group for the past year. The Islamic State first took over areas in Anbar
in January, then launched its blitzkrieg in the north in June. The US intervened only after the Islamic State seized the Mosul Dam and advanced into areas controlled by the Kurds. The airstrikes have helped the Kurds and the Iraqi military retake the dam and surrounding areas.