Islamic State captures huge air base in Syria
Islamic State forces charged into a massive air base in northeastern Syria, sending Syrian army units flying and capturing - and beheading - dozens more.
The terrorists reportedly used a child suicide bomber to breach the outer fence, and then stormed into the sprawling complex. IS lost about 500 fighters in the assault, demonstrating a fanaticism that must be terrifying to enemy soldiers.
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 extremists since last month. Those victories are part of the Islamic State group's 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 jihadis launched their long-anticipated offensive last week to seize the sprawling Tabqa facility, located some 45 kilometers (25 miles) from the extremists' stronghold in the city of Raqqa along the Euphrates River.
After several failed efforts to breach the walls in recent days, Islamic State fighters managed to punch through and storm the air base Sunday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. 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 the Islamic State is in full control of Tabqa," said Observatory director Rami Abdurrahman. "This makes Raqqa province the first to fully fall out of government hands."
Another activist group, the Local Coordination Committees, also said the extremist group was in control of Tabqa.
The SANA state news agency confirmed that the government had lost the air base, saying troops "are successfully reassembling 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 a both a symbolic and a strategic blow.
Islamic State fighters had been closing in on the base for weeks. When the fight finally came, it was bloody.
Does Islamic State now have an air force? According to Wikipedia, Tabqa air base has 12 squadrons of MIG-21's based there - both combat aircraft and trainers. While the MIG-21 is an ancient air craft and no match for the US Air Force or most air forces in the region, it's a servicable platform tio use against Iraq.
Do they have the pilots, the ground crews, and the fuel to use them? No one knows. The IS may be fanatics, but they are also resourceful. If they don't have the personnel, they can buy people to train them.
An IS military with an air arm would be a potential game changer.