Islamic State fighters assault last Syrian stronghold in Raqqah

Iraqi and Syrian towns and cities seized by the Islamic State and its allies. Map created by Patrick Megahan and Bill Roggio for The Long War Journal. Click to view larger map.

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.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • m3f2002 says:

    “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.”
    What? Can’t they fly? That region is flat as a pancake. The base itself was heavily fortified with significant fire power available. It looks like they cut and ran into the desert. Every man for himself. They will be easy pickings for IS forces. More concerning there are indications of a temporary truce between IS and Al Nusra. This doesn’t bode well for Assad. Frankly, I’ve said this a year ago, Assad and his inner circle has to be dispatched and perhaps an alliance between secular Sunni, Druze, Shia, Christians, and SAA remnants might be the best solution at this point. Eastern Syria/western Iraq are now and for the foreseeable future is a terrorist stronghold. FUBAR.

  • KW64 says:

    Given that Assad put his thumb on the scales to assist IS in its fight against the Free Syrian Army, I suspect that if the US felt compelled to move against IS in Syria that Assad would shift all his military attention to the FSA and even given tacit assistance to the IS in order to bloody the US nose so that we do do not stick around just as he supported Al Queda in Iraq for the same purpose. Thus, if the US moves against IS in Syria, it should assume that it will also have to take on Assad as well. To do otherwise would simply hand a victory to Iran and Assad while they made any continued US presence as expensive as they could make it.

  • James says:

    Let’s hope and pray that Assad (like Maliki) will finally ‘smell the roses’ and step down.
    He has brought nothing but misery and agony to his people and nation, especially to his military.
    It befuddles me to know why the Syrian military hasn’t turned their guns on him yet.

  • Joaquin Armendariz says:

    The area controlled by IS looks like the me statistics pattern of some cancers. The nodes are points that to be obliterated in Iraq and Syria – as to Assad he needs to be given a ultimatum leave with your family or die with them incinerated – as to Turkey they need to participate in the chemotherapy regimen or forget any chance of EU membership – similar ultimatum to Iran do your share and give us the Quds force general or we allow Israel to use tactical nukes on you if needed! Cancers like IS need swift smart systemic and strategic therapies to wipe them out. We may need to use fuel bombs or even tactical nukes should conventional means do not yield results. Finally, all the peace mongerers who would complain I say – Get out of the way because in this case losing is not an option!

  • Dan says:

    Assad assisted IS to fight the FSA? I’m sorry, I missed that one. Care to direct me to that information?
    Assad is probably the only person in Syria who the US needs to assist. As published here at the LWJ, every opposition force in Syria has at one time or another worked with al Qaeda sponsored forces. There are no moderates, and to publicly announce there is shows utter arrogance.
    The US needs to make some difficult decisions and work toward uniting with the Regime to thwart the IS. Whether covertly or overtly, this seems to be the only solution.
    It is a profound train-of-thought to believe removing Assad will all of a sudden make Syria a better place. Show me a recent example of where the US supported the removal of a Middle Eastern Head of State that ultimately brought peace to the country. You’ll be struggling…

  • RichardL says:

    well, it befuddles me why the US has not allied itself with Assad. They would get any concession for a postwar Syria out of him and get Iran’s major ally to defect plus could have the islamic fundamentalists destroyed by a well-equipped surrogate army. The strategic situation in the whole region would completely change against Iran, Russia and the terror supporters SA and Qatar. Then one had a nice bargaining chip with Russia too and could forge the much needed global alliance with this large Christian nation against the islamic danger.

  • m3fd2002 says:

    You have some good points. In response to one of your questions, here’s my two-cents: The US had nothing to do with it, but the coup of Sisi to dump Morsi was strategic in nature and probably averted another conflagration. Assad has got to be eliminated to sate the need for revenge of all of the ethnic groups in Syria as a starting point. Should this happen, along with a re-approachment with the old Baathist elements, southern tribes, Druze, Kurds, Christians, Turkman, etc. along with a promise of significant monies, that might be the best chance to counter the IS. It’s all about control of water, oil, money and power. IS will be a problem for some time. They are the Arab street’s flavor de jour, so they will be getting boat loads of young idealistic recruits. Also, Erdogan (Turkey) is a major problem.

  • Dan says:

    Let’s say Assad stood down or was removed today, and we started bringing those you mention together with the hope they could affect change and at least reverse the momentum of the IS. How long do you think this would take? That is providing you had a country who felt totally liberated that Assad was no longer in power. This is not the case. I think it fair to assume the divisions of loyalty inside Syria would be 50/50. Personally, I tend to believe Assad may have a majority vote, but the jury is out on that. At least in the OS sector.
    Syria is a melting pot of Islamic jihadists all fighting for power, that have no idea what comes after they take it. That is a huge problem the West must consider.
    The IS are proving to be nothing like we have seen before. Dynamic, fluid, ruthless, extremely well funded and armed. But they are sticking to AQ’s doctrine of goading the West into an angered, hopefully prolonged military response through their very smart use of social media. This is something we must also be wary of, because we have been here before.
    What you suggest could work, but do we have the time to experiment with it? Or should the first move be determining options that use Assad and his forces to at least contain the IS before working toward longer term political stability? Assad has proven to be quite the opponent, with some strong allies. Why do we not take advantage of that first?

  • blert says:

    Assad is — at this stage — Putin’s puppet.
    That’s the equation.
    The SINGLE most likely progression of events:
    1) ISIS crushes what’s left of AQ/ al-Nusrah — mostly by absorbing its cadres — and assassinating the rest.
    ISIS has been on a crusade to crush AQ in Syria for many months now, with nary a reverse in all that time.
    2) ISIS absorbs the last shreds of the FSA — even as the West is told that the FSA still exists — and that it should receive additional monies and weapons. If given, these would be promptly be re-purposed by ISIS. This sequence is, by now, well established. Review past postings in the Long War Journal for additional details.
    3) Assad hangs on, and on, and on — falling back to the coast. He maintains support from every minority faction within the Syrian polity. At the end, ‘Western Syria’ will look like ‘Lebanon North.’ In sum: Assad is actually irrelevant. He’ll never take Syria back to the status quo ante — which he keeps pitching to his supporters.
    4) The Syrian-Iraqi border drawn by France and Britain is sent to the dust bin of history. Strangely, even now the President talks and acts as if it has real world meaning. Official Washington STILL talks as if there’s a difference between Syria and Iraq when it’s obvious to a three-year old that IS is a new nation and that the old border is — literally — history.
    5) At some point, expect ISIS/ IS to achieve formal recognition — starting with (radical) Muslim states. Qatar would LOVE to do so — right now. Expect the Taliban to be first out of the gate.
    6) If the President actually follows through with ‘containment’ then expect (step-wise) every Muslim nation from Indonesia and westward to join in recognition of ISIS/ IS. Significantly, IS is NOT calling for the prompt liquidation of the Saudi royal family. (ALWAYS a priority for AQ, it gets absolutely no Western press acknowledgment.)
    7) Turkey and Qatar are IS’ hole cards. Due to economic pressure, expect Ankara to shunt Syrian and Iraqi crude oil onto the world market. Even now, Turkey is ramping up pipeline capacity from the Med to (Iraqi) Kurdistan. Lost on most: Erdogan has come to terms with Iraqi Kurds. (And, Assad has come to terms with Syrian Kurds.)
    8) Iraqi Kurds are politically distant from Syrian Kurds, Turkish Kurds and Iranian Kurds. Indeed, Iraqi Kurds are, themselves, split into two factions — and have been for decades.
    All of the above means that the President needs a fresh playbill every time he sits down for a briefing. ‘Tis enough to give him a headache.
    It also explains why his policy is at cross currents.
    For, no matter which way he turns, he’s facing a dilemma. EVERY faction has his ear.

  • Greg Leichty says:

    There is a force in Syria that is moderate and has had more success than anyone in holding off ISIS. Look up the Rojava Report. We will not arm them apparently because it might make the Turks mad. BTW, they were the ones you saved the Yazidis on Mount Sinjar.

  • Adam says:

    The IS is overextended. They can’t possibly hold all the territory they’ve captured. Eventually, the Iraqi and Syrian armies are going to figure out how to deal with them, and threatened states such as Jordan and Saudi are going to join the fray.

  • Paul says:

    The region would be more stable with Assad staying as President. US Foreign policy makers need to accept this reality.
    Time to work w/ them in destroying ISIS inside Raqqa & along the rivers.

  • Tom says:

    @ Greg Leichty
    The Rojava Kurds are losing their war. Kobane is practically cut off from the world and no longer has functioning water supply and its harvest is ruined as IS patrols and raids at will through the countryside while isolating and destroying YPG positions one by one. Hasakah has seen YPG lose large amounts of territory to IS and YPG inflated claims of kills are just that, inflated claims. To top it off IS routing the worthless KDP Peshmerga caused them to deploy large numbers to Iraq to save the Yezidis.
    Kurdish military history isn’t of tough mountain fighters winning glorious victories but of guerrillas getting smashed by everyone in lopsided battles even against Saddam. KDP especially which was Saddam’s joint puppet alongside Turkey in the Kurdish Civil War, has a long history of incompetence.

  • Arjuna says:

    I’ll see that comment and raise you one:
    “The region [world] would be more stable with Assad [Saddam, Gaddafi and Mubarek] staying as President. US Foreign policy makers need to accept this reality.”
    We Americans love to do regime change in other people’s countries. It feels so empowering. As Pakistan tees up to throw the bums out, we should be careful going forward. The world needs stability more than protests, revolution and civil wars, especially those engendered from outside.

  • Barnhart says:

    It is true that the Assad regime is the only force aside from the feeble Syrian Kurds protecting Syria’s array of minorities (Christians, Druze, Ismailis, etc..) from slaughter at the hands of a knife wielding devil. Yet, there is no way that leaving him (Assad) at the reigns will ever end this brutal war. It is true he supported AQI and it’s variants in Anbar. I was present at more than a couple checkpoint confiscations of munitions, weapons, and bomb making materiels and at least one roadside shooting of Syrian jihadis attempting to enter Fallujah as an infantryman there. A case to support those who claim Assad hasn’t let off the pressure in previous months so ISIS could pound, car bomb, and assassinate away other ‘Revolutionary’ forces (excluding Al Nusra in this instance) was when ISIS captured a key city north of Aleppo in Dec 2013, threatening to wedge those ‘other’ forces between ISIS and SAA positions, effectively leaving them surrounded and without supply lines. It wasn’t until a week or so after ISIS was driven out that the Government forces began bombing the city again. I want to say it was Al Antari or something similar in name. (Reference the PBS Frontline Episode Syria’s Second Front from Feb. 2014.) The Islamic State is the greatest manifestation of Evil in my lifetime and I for one eagerly anticipate a ruthless, merciless crushing of these devils. But have grown too accustomed to our government’s politically correct half-measures at fighting wars (to the cost of my friends lives) to have great faith it will be done effectively. Yet as in that instance off that dusty road in Fallujah I mentioned earlier, it’s members who are caught on the battlefield, in my opinion should be dispatched with a couple rounds to the head. But not a knife to the throat for that is a tool only for the savages. Merciless violence of action, sustained with overwhelming force.

  • paco says:

    Saw a couple of video’s showing IS infiltrating kurd territory, and felt sorry for the peshmerga – they had one sorry guy firing away from a single gun emplacement, and about 30 guys with AK’s standing around in bewilderment. While these guys were standing around, it was clear they didn’t have an idea of what to do. At the same time, IS guys rolled up on a highway, dumped out in crowds and quickly spread to various buildings. Nobody thought to guard or mine the roads? Oh boy….these guys are in big doo-doo.


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