BEIRUT: ISIS militants are setting their sights on seizing a military airport in Raqqa province after capturing the Brigade 93 Syrian army base overnight, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Friday.
“ISIS took Brigade 93 after fierce fighting and a triple suicide bomb attack,” Observatory head Rami Abdel-Rahman said, adding that government forces now hold just one position in the province, at Tabqa military airport.
He said ISIS was now preparing to attack the airport, the last bastion in the province of President Bashar Assad’s forces. The Observatory said that a number of soldiers fled Brigade 93, in the direction of either the Tabqa airport or nearby villages, as ISIS seized the facility.
Since February, most of Raqqa has been held by ISIS, which now calls itself the Islamic State, after the jihadists ousted mainstream rebel groups battling Assad’s regime.
Some troops had already pulled out of Brigade 93 in July after ISIS captured Division 17, another base in the region, where at least 85 people were killed in fighting or summarily executed shortly afterward, the Britain-based, anti-regime monitor said.
It said that in the fighting for Brigade 93, “36 soldiers were killed, some of whom were beheaded, while others died in the fighting or in the initial triple suicide bombing” that launched the attack.
At least 15 jihadists were killed, including the three suicide bombers who blew themselves up at the entrance to the base at the start of the attack Wednesday night.
“Assad had pledged to retake Raqqa. Not only has he failed to do so, he has lost his bases,” Abdel-Rahman said.
When he was sworn in for a third term, after an election denounced by the opposition and much of the international community as a sham, Assad vowed to free Raqqa of “terrorists.”
His regime uses the catch-all term to refer to all of those who oppose Assad’s rule, political opposition and armed rebels alike.
The Observatory said a number of severed heads of soldiers from Brigade 93 were displayed in Raqqa’s Naim Square, which has been used on several occasions by ISIS for summary executions.
Separately, Syrian warplanes wounded an unknown number of ISIS militants and civilians when they targeted two sites in Tabqa, a labor union facility taken over by ISIS and used as a headquarters, and a building in another neighborhood, the Observatory said.
In next-door Deir al-Zor province, where ISIS has seized territory recently, the militant group continued to suffer casualties in attacks by locals, while airstrikes killed a number of ISIS members in the village of al-Jurdi, on the Euphrates river.
The Observatory said gunmen ambushed an ISIS patrol in the city of Al-Bukamal on the Iraqi border, killing three of the militants. ISIS launched a campaign of arrests in the town in response, it added. A separate campaign of arrests targeted the town of Ashara, another site of anti-ISIS attacks.
The developments came one day after ISIS published a number of gruesome photos purporting to show the summary execution of at least 19 young men in Deir al-Zor province, the Observatory and anti-regime activists said.
The men were not fighters but guards and civilian employees at oil installations in Deir al-Zor province, the Observatory said, citing local activists.
Meanwhile, government aircraft dropped leaflets in areas of Deir al-Zor, praising local tribes for their stand against ISIS.
The Observatory said two separate leaflets were dropped, with messages of support from the “Syrian Arab Army” to the “Heroic Men of the Tribes.”
The leaflets, dropped by helicopter, praised the tribal fighters for “confronting the ISIS gangs, who are stealing and looting property and committing violations against [our] land and our honor.”
It named the Sheaitat tribe as one such tribe taking part in the mini-rebellion, although the tribe itself appears to be split, with a tribal leader this week declaring it was unconnected to the attacks.
Observers say that a number of other hit-and-run attacks against ISIS militants appear to be organized by enraged locals and clandestine rebel groups, irrespective of tribal connections.