For weeks, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has launched offensives against the Taqba Air Base in Raqqa, the Syrian regime’s last remaining military point in the province – which is now largely controlled by ISIS.
Taqba has strategic value for both sides. For the Syrian army, it provides a base from which to launch strikes against key ISIS targets in nearby Raqqa city – part of a promise made my President Bashar al-Assad to take it back from the Sunni extremist group. For ISIS, it would both yield a bounty of weapons and equipment, and eliminate the regime air threat against its flagship city.
We asked Omar Lamrani, an analyst at Stratfor who studies the Syrian military, to weigh in on the costs of fighting for Taqba – borne by both sides – and the odds that the regime will continue to hold it.
Syria Deeply: What makes Taqba such a strategic position?
Omar Lamrani: The Taqba air base was a pretty important air base before the war – it was used for a lot of training and flights [in and out of that region of the country], and it was close to the Turkish border. Nowadays, it keeps the regime’s foothold in the area, and provides it with a staging base to carry out air strikes against ISIS targets in Raqqa city and to transport equipment further east to Deir Ezzor.
Its value now is also symbolic, in light of Assad’s promise that he will take back Raqqa city for the regime. They are currently surrounded at the base by many sides, which means they are still able to bring in reinforcements by air, but it’s not a very condusive situation. It’s heavily fortified – they have a lot of tanks and artillery, and defense positions that have built up over a period of time.
Syria Deeply: Why is Taqba important to ISIS?
Lamrani: Taking the base is important to ISIS on multiple levels. The city itself is the capital of their caliphate, where their headquarters are, and where a lot of the ISIS leadership is moving now, because they are escaping to Iraq. The leadership has been transitioning to Raqqa from Iraq even though their fighters remain in Iraq. They took [the Raqqa-based regime powerhouses] Division 17, then Brigade 93, and have really cleared out areas to the north of the city. They would feel even more secure with the air base, because it would give them a lot of space between their positions in Raqqa and that controlled by their enemies. That’s why they continue to mount these campaigns against it.
ISIS really takes advantage of seizing regime positions by capturing equipment and then using it in future battles. In Hassakeh, when they took an artillery position, they captured multiple rocket launchers and then used them in the fight against Brigade 93. ISIS doesn’t have a strategic supply of weapons, not from the US or the Gulf Cooperation Council or Iran or Russia, unlike the regime and opposition groups. Most equipment they have to purchase from regional black markets, or steal themselves.
Syria Deeply: How hard will it be for ISIS to take the base?
Lamrani: It’s heavily defended. And attacking airports is very difficult because there’s flat terrain around them, good fields of fire, so it’s hard for to approach without being fired at. They have been anticipating an ISIS attack, especially as ISIS has gone and attacked other regime positions. They knew it was coming and had time to prepare for it. ISIS has lost something like 17 fighters in the Taqba offensive so far, but it will come back and keep trying to take the base. It might take time to get ready to strike again, but this is going to be an ongoing thing and in the long term it doesn’t look good for the regime. It’s far from the regime’s front lines and supply lines.
Syria Deeply: What is it costing the regime to hold Taqba?
Lamrani: It’s a drain on resources. We’re talking about anywhere from 350 to 1,000 soldiers, keeping them supplied and reinforced, casualty evacuation, and all the ballistic missile attacks that go into keeping the base secure. The regime has really pulled out all the stops on [fortifying the base]. They’re spending a lot of resources to protect the base. And the more they concentrate on it, the more they divert resources from other locations in Syria.
Syria Deeply: What will it mean if the regime loses?
Lamrani: It’s a blocking position against ISIS, and if the regime loses, it will release a lot of ISIS fighters from this fight into other areas. It’s almost in the middle of Syria and so they can swing those fighters east towards Deir Ezzor, or transition them towards the fight against the Kurds, or to Hama or Homs, the rebel position north of Aleppo. ISIS tends to move in formation of 500 to 800 fighters, and this will clear up a couple of those formations.