The Syrian Army and allied forces have broken the Islamic State’s siege of the Kweiris air base in Aleppo province, according to Bashar al Assad’s regime and independent sources.
The “caliphate’s” jihadists held their ground surrounding the air base for nearly two years, cutting off the Assad loyalists who were defending the facility from reinforcements. But in what is likely Assad’s biggest success since Russia intervened in the war, the Islamic State has suffered significant losses in the villages and countryside surrounding the air base.
“Units of the army achieved new progress in the war against terrorism in [the] Aleppo eastern countryside reaching Kweiris airport and contacting…the heroic soldiers who have thwarted hundreds of attempts by ISIS [Islamic State] to attack the airport during the latest months,” the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA), Assad’s propaganda arm, reported. “During the operations carried out to lift the siege on the airport,” SANA’s account continued, “the army killed hundreds of ISIS terrorists and destroyed their dens and cells with all weapons inside.”
Assad’s men also claim to have “established control” over “tens of villages and strategic hills in the eastern countryside of Aleppo, the latest of which was the village of Sheikh Ahmad near the airport.” SANA has published pictures from Sheikh Ahmad, saying the village was “recently secured by the Syrian Army.” The fall of Sheikh Ahmad cleared the path for the Syrian military and its paramilitary allies to advance on Kweiris.
Russia’s intervention apparently played a key role in the Syrian Army’s ability to loosen the Islamic State’s grip on the area. In late September, Assad’s forces launched a large-scale ground operation intended to retake the turf surrounding the air base. Assad’s military reportedly provided air cover using newly arrived Russian warplanes.
Russia conducted its own bombings outside of Kweiris as well. “Syrian troops tried in the past to reach the air base with no luck but Russian airstrikes appear to have helped in forcing [the Islamic State] from the area,” the Associated Press (AP) reported.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), Assad’s soldiers have fought alongside Hezbollah jihadists, Syria’s National Defense Forces (a collection of pro-Assad militias) and “Iranian fighters” as they made their way toward the air base. This combined ground force has also been supported by “airstrikes by the Russian and regime air forces.”
At least eight Hezbollah fighters were killed during the push into Kweiris, according to The Daily Star, a publication based in Lebanon.
Harakat al Nujaba, an Iranian-backed militant organization that fights in Iraq and Syria, claims to have played a key role in operation. A post on Harakat al Nujaba’s official website says that its fighters helped clear the Islamic State from Sheikh Ahmad and other villages surrounding the air base. Harakat al Nujaba has long maintained a presence in Aleppo, so its role in the most recent battle is not surprising.
The Islamic State actually gained ground in Aleppo during the first weeks of Russia’s intervention. The group seized towns and villages from other rebel groups, which were Russia’s primary targets. But while Russia has hit other rebels hard, it has also been targeting the Islamic State throughout the country.
As is the case elsewhere in Syria, the war in Aleppo province is a complex, multi-sided affair. In addition to the Islamic State, Sunni jihadist groups such as Al Nusrah Front and Ahrar al Sham, both of which are opposed to the Islamic State, are heavily involved in the fighting. In fact, Al Nusrah and Ahrar al Sham claim to have captured a small number of villages in the past week. Al Nusrah is al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, while Ahrar al Sham is closely allied with Al Nusrah and has its own al Qaeda links. In early July, the two groups formed the Ansar al Sharia alliance in Aleppo, but the coalition’s current status is not clear.
Another coalition based in Aleppo, Fatah Halab, was also formed earlier this year. Fatah Halab was formed by more than two dozen rebel organizations, including Ahrar al Sham, Free Syrian Army brigades, and other Islamist groups. At its founding, the alliance explicitly excluded Al Nusrah.