On Sunday, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) took control of the Tabqa military base in Raqqa province from the Syrian army. The win further consolidated the Sunni militant group’s dominance of eastern Syria.
It was a symbolic, strategic and tactical achievement for ISIS. For the regime, it meant the loss of its last remaining foothold in the province, from which it had been launching airstrikes on key ISIS targets in Raqqa city.
“The significance of seizing the base is also tied to fact that ISIS wants to control all of northern Syria so that it can safeguard the transit of fighters and their exports into Turkey,” says Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Dubai-based thinktank INEGMA. “It’s important to note that [in combat in the east] ISIS always goes towards major waterways and supply lines.”
We asked Christopher Phillips, lecturer at the University of London and former Syria editor at the Economist Intelligence Unit, and Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, to weigh in on what Tabqa will do for ISIS and what it will cost the Assad regime.
Syria Deeply: What does the victory mean for ISIS?
Chris Phillips: It depends a lot on what they were able to loot from the base. Reports are conflicting. Some say the regime was able to evacuate all of its functional planes and a lot of its equipment before it fled, whereas others have said many of the planes and Manpads were left behind. If the latter is true, it means that ISIS now has its hands on more weaponry, including that which would be able to shoot down regime helicopters. It would be a significant haul for them.
The wider picture for ISIS is that it’s part of a push to consolidate the territory they’ve taken in eastern Syria. One by one they’ve been picking off the last pockets held by the regime. From their perspective, it means they now control one united swath of territory.
Joshua Landis: It is another feather in their cap. They have taken three military bases around Raqqa, while the other militias (like Nusra) that had tried to take bases in the province struggled. And here’s ISIS blowing them away. This demonstrates that ISIS got a lot of new equipment and hardware from its conquests in Iraq. They’ve got heavy cannons and other stuff that can blow apart these bases.
The fact that it took them only a few days to destroy Taqba during this wave of the offensive raises the question of urban warfare – we have never seen ISIS fight hard in a urban area. They took Mosul but without a real fight. The question is, Is Aleppo next? If ISIS can take Aleppo, this would be a major achievement. And it could force the U.S. into a very awkward relationship with the Syrian government. Should ISIS decide to take Aleppo, it’s certainly in the U.S.’s interest not to let them do it.
We haven’t had a showdown in a major area that means a lot to the regime. It’s clear the regime considers the Western half of Syria as its real strategic interest. It largely pulled out of the east at the beginning of the conflict, leaving only air bases to give it a foothold. Now ISIS is dismantling those outposts one by one.
Syria Deeply: What does this mean for the regime and its supporters?
Phillips: It means it’s even harder for them to operate by air in eastern Syria. Taqba and other bases were being used for refueling and as landing strips during the regime’s air assaults on ISIS over the last month or so. Additionally, the symbolism is important. They have faced a considerable number of attacks from ISIS in the last month, which has come as quite a surprise to the regime. That’s going to increase domestic supporters’ pressure on Assad to strike ISIS even harder, even though the regime is at one of its weakest positions of the last year.
Landis: After it consolidates in the east, we’ll see what ISIS’s objectives are in western Syria. Their success there would depend largely on the allegiance of the Sunni population of Syria’s western cities. As we saw in Mosul and much of eastern Syria, the Sunni tribal population has largely been against both Assad and Maliki forces. But that may be different once you get to places like Homs and Damascus.
It’s not clear that the Sunni population of Syrian cities would reach out to ISIS. Urban Sunnis have typically turned away from the rebels, because the militias were so chaotic and often criminal. They don’t necessarily like Assad, but they crave stability. But now you have ISIS, which could reanimate the revolutionary fervor of segments of that population. It will depend, of course, on ISIS continuing its momentum.
Syria Deeply: Will the takeover of Taqba provide any impetus for the U.S. to move faster on striking ISIS in Syria?
Phillips: It’s difficult to see how this makes that much of a difference. We’ve seen from the narration and language used by the U.S. administration that there is a gearing up by the Obama administration as regards its intent to strike ISIS positions in Syria. The capture of Taqba is really just an indication of the need to strike. But publicly, the administration can’t use it as a negative because they beat Assad there, and Assad isn’t a U.S. ally.