Islamic State militants seized a Syrian air base, dislodging forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad from their last stronghold in the northeastern Raqqa province.
The al-Qaeda breakaway group, which is also fighting government forces in Iraq, stormed the Tabaqa air base after battles that began last week, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the daily developments of the civil war. The government moved its aircraft to other bases, it said.
With the capture of the air base, Raqqa becomes the first province fully outside Assad’s control, further cementing the Islamic State’s hold inside its self-declared state, and allowing it to focus on the neighboring Aleppo province. The group, previously known as ISIS, has already seized villages and towns held by other rebels in Aleppo.
The seizure “means the group can keep moving forward to Aleppo, which is a strategic goal as ISIS drives relentlessly towards the coastline,” Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai, said in a phone interview. Aleppo’s airport is vital to the group’s economic survival as it seeks to “import what it needs,” he said.
At least 170 government troops were killed yesterday and 150 may have been captured, the SOHR said. More than 346 Islamic State fighters have died in government airstrikes and barrel bombings since the group opened its assault on the facility Aug. 19, it said. The militants were seen walking in Tabaqa city carrying the severed heads of Syrian soldiers, the observatory, which relies on witnesses, said in a report. Today, Syrian government forces carried out five airstrikes against Islamic State fighters at the Tabaqa airbase, SOHR said.
The embattled Syrian government sought to break its isolation, offering to cooperate with any U.S. airstrikes against Islamic State militants inside Syria, according to Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem.
Any strike without coordination would be an act of aggression, and the Syrian government is ready to cooperate regionally and with the U.S. and U.K., he said.
The airport’s capture was “a hard blow to the Syrian government,” Fawaz Gerges, professor of Middle East politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science, said by phone today. “It increases the pressure on the regime tremendously” at a time when the Syrian army is overextended as it fights fierce battles on several fronts, he said.
The Syrian offer came after Ben Rhodes, the deputy White House national security adviser, said Aug. 22 that the U.S. will consider airstrikes in Syria to combat Islamic State, which beheaded American journalist James Foley earlier this month. The group said Foley’s execution was in retaliation for U.S. strikes, which have helped Kurdish and Iraqi forces to regain some territory.
The U.S. came close to military action against Assad a year ago, and has given no indication that strikes in Syria would be coordinated with the government there.
Syria’s state-run SANA news agency said that following “fierce battles” at Tabaqa yesterday, Syrian troops regrouped after the airport was evacuated. Forces were still “carrying out precision strikes against the terrorist groups in the area and inflicting heavy losses,” it said.
Islamic State declared an Islamic caliphate in Syria and Iraq in June after capturing Mosul, northern Iraq’s biggest city, and other towns. Its advance in Iraq prompted the U.S. to send military advisers and eventually to carry out airstrikes against the group, helping Kurdish and Iraqi government troops regain control of the Mosul Dam, the country’s biggest.
Islamic State is using a mix of Russian and western weapons it captured in Syria and Iraq, ranging from artillery and Humvee trucks to missiles and assembled unmanned aircraft for reconnaissance, Karasik said.
Halgourd Hikmat, a spokesman for the Kurdish peshmerga forces, said by phone today that they were positioned outside Jalula, a town about 100 miles (160 kilometers) northeast of Baghdad with a mixed population of Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens.
In Baghdad, a suicide bomber detonated his explosives in a Shiite religious center, state-sponsored Iraqiya television reported. The Associated Press said at least 12 people were killed. Islamic State, a Sunni Muslim group, has targeted Iraq’s majority Shiites as well as Christians and other minorities.