SHAFAQNA (International Shia News Association) – The extremist group Islamic State captured a major air base in the northeastern province of Raqqa, driving out regime forces and gaining full control of an entire Syrian province for the first time in the civil war.
Several opposition activists based in the Raqqa area said Islamic State fighters were able to pierce the defenses of the Tabqa air base earlier Sunday and take it over. The capture came after fierce clashes with regime forces for five days at the gates of the military installation located near a town and a dam on the Euphrates River that bear the same name as the Tabqa air base.
It was the latest strategic conquest for the group, which has captured large swaths of territory in Syria and neighboring Iraq. Its recent advances in northern Iraq toward the semiautonomous Kurdish region and threats to religious minorities drew U.S. airstrikes on the militants in Iraq.
The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition group tracking the conflict through its own network of activists inside Syria, said Islamic State militants captured most of the air base. A contingent of regime forces that had been stationed there withdrew to the town of Athraya to the southwest on a major supply route controlled by the regime, the Observatory said.
The regime’s state-controlled news agency SANA described the withdrawal from the air base as a tactical one, an apparent attempt to soften the impact of the loss on regime supporters.
“Our forces have completed a successful regrouping operation after withdrawing from the air base, and they are still carrying out precision strikes against the terrorist groups in the area,” said SANA.
The fall of the base to Islamic State fighters gives the group full control of Raqqa province, which shares borders with Turkey to the north and the crucial province of Aleppo to the west. East of Raqqa, the group already controls parts of Hasakah province and more than 80% of Deir-Ezzour province, both bordering Iraq.
Over the past month, Islamic State has succeeded in capturing the headquarters of the Syrian Army’s 17th Division in Raqqa and another base for the 93rd Brigade of the same division also located in Raqqa.
The beheading of American journalist James Foley has prompted American officials to begin working to knit together a broader international campaign to combat Islamic State, an effort that the Pentagon warned will require taking the fight beyond Iraq and into Syria.
Corrections & Amplifications
The capture came after fierce clashes with regime forces for five days at the gates of the military installation located near a town and a dam on the Euphrates River that bear the same name as the Tabqa air base. A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the town and dam bear the same name as the province, Raqqa.