BEIRUT: ISIS fighters captured Sunday a major military air base in Syria’s northeast, eliminating the last regime-held outpost in a province otherwise dominated by the jihadist group, activists and state media said.
Tabqa airfield – home to several warplane squadrons, helicopters, tanks, artillery and ammunition bunkers – is the third military base in the area to fall to the militants since last month.
Those victories are part of ISIS’ aggressive push to consolidate its hold on northern and eastern provinces, while also expanding the boundaries of its self-styled caliphate straddling the Syria-Iraq border.
The jihadists launched their long-anticipated offensive last week to seize the sprawling Tabqa facility, located some 45 kms from the extremists’ stronghold in the city of Raqqa along the Euphrates River.
After several failed efforts to breach the walls in recent days, ISIS fighters managed to punch through and storm the air base Sunday, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-regime group. Government warplanes carried out waves of airstrikes to try to beat back the attack, but those ultimately proved unable to stem the assault. “Some of the Syrian regime troops pulled out, and now [ISIS] is in full control of Tabqa,” Observatory director Rami Abdel-Rahman said. “This makes Raqqa province the first to fully fall out of government hands.”
State news agency SANA confirmed that the government had lost the air base, saying troops “are successfully regrouping after evacuating the airport.” It said that the military was still “striking terrorist groups, inflicting heavy losses on them.”
The government had made significant investments in both weapons and manpower to try to hold onto Tabqa, making its fall both a symbolic and a strategic blow.
ISIS fighters had been closing in on the base for weeks. When the fight finally came, it was bloody. The Observatory said nearly 350 ISIS fighters were killed and several hundred wounded during fighting and in government airstrikes since last week’s assault. Meanwhile, more than 170 government troops also were killed Sunday alone, and there were reports that another 150 may have been captured, it added.
Tabqa is the latest in a string of bases to fall to ISIS as it strengthens its hold over a vast swath of territory in northern and eastern Syria. Last month, ISIS fighters overran the sprawling Division 17 military base in Raqqa, killing at least 85 soldiers. Two weeks later, they seized the nearby Brigade 93 base after days of heavy fighting.
The group’s trademark brutality was on full display after those victories. They killed army commanders and pro-government militiamen, decapitating them before putting their bodies and heads on display. The Observatory reported similar acts following the fall of Tabqa.
Also, five civilians were killed by an airstrike on the city of Raqqa, targeting the notorious Naim Square, where ISIS carries out public executions and other punishments, the Observatory said.
With Tabqa now in hand, ISIS could focus on the battlefront in neighboring Aleppo province. The extremists have already captured at least a dozen towns and villages there in recent weeks, crushing mainstream Syrian rebels and advancing toward the city of Aleppo.
However, the Observatory reported that an alliance of Islamist and Kurdish anti-regime militias retook two villages in rural Aleppo Sunday, a few days after they were seized by ISIS.
And in rural Homs province, ISIS was withdrawing its fighters after handing over its headquarters to Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria the Nusra Front, the Observatory said. It did not provide a reason for the withdrawal, or more details, other than the move came on the orders of its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, citing sources in areas north of Homs.
Separately, rocket fire from Syria slammed into the Israeli-occupied sector of the Golan Heights, but there were no reports of casualties.
“At least five rockets fired from Syria hit different locations across the Golan Heights,” the Israeli army said in a statement.
An army spokeswoman told AFP that it was not known who launched the rockets and the Israeli military did not return fire.