8/25/14, "Islamic extremists seize base, behead soldiers," Fairfax Media, New Zealand, Roy Gutman and Mousab Alhamadee
"Islamic extremists have captured a major government military airport
in Raqqa, eastern Syria, completing their takeover of the entire
province and dealing a humiliating blow to President Bashar Assad.
The victory is further evidence that the Islamic State is determined
to widen its grip on the region.
Since it launched its assaults in
June, the Islamic State has captured half of Iraq and one-third of Syria
and operates an Islamic caliphate armed with US weapons and financed by
booty seized during its lightning raids.
The official Syrian news agency Sunday evening conceded the loss of
the Tabka military base with a terse and euphemistic report that said
Syrian forces had performed "a successful regrouping after evacuating"
Journalist Rafik Lutf, who is close to the Assad regime, earlier
reported the loss of the airport and the death of about 150 troops.
An official of the conquering Islamic State said the group seized
control after a four-day battle, in which 78 Islamic State fighters were
killed and 240 wounded.
Anti-government activists in the Raqqa area said the Syrian army
flew combat aircraft from Tabka to Deir al Zour in eastern Syria and to
another major desert base, and that 20 vehicles full of Syrian troops
were seen driving out of the base.
The casualties may be a good deal higher. An Islamic State official,
who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not an authorised
Islamic State spokesman, said the regime had stationed 873 soldiers on
The Islamic State, which last week executed American journalist
James Foley and circulated a video showing his decapitation, reportedly
beheaded a number of captured Syrian soldiers Sunday and put their
severed heads on display in the city of Raqqa. The Raqqa Media Center,
an anti-government opposition group, published a photo of a one
The regime, meanwhile, stepped up its bombardment of Raqqa, and
opposition sources said the victims of its bombs Sunday included
civilians who had gone to the center of Raqqa to see the severed heads
In contrast to Islamic State's treatment of Foley, a different
Islamist fighting group, the Nusra Front, released another American
civilian after holding him for two years. Secretary of State John Kerry
welcomed the return of a man he identified as Peter Theo Curtis from
"the clutches of Jabhat al Nusra," an al-Qaeda affiliate that the U.S.
lists as a terrorist organization.
Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based television network, called Curtis a
journalist. His family later revealed that he was born Theophilus Eaton
Padnos but after publishing a book about his undercover exploits in
Yemen, changed his name to Theo Curtis so he could continue travelling
in the Arab world. It's not clear if Curtis, whose book, "Undercover
Muslim: A Journey into Yemen," published in Britain, had any
Islamic State' capture of Tabka was clearly an embarrassment to the
Assad regime, for it came just five weeks after Assad pledged publicly
to recover the entire province.
"Although we have made great achievements in our war against
terrorism in the past period, we have not forgotten and will not forget
our beloved 'Raqqa,' which, God willing, we will soon rid of the
terrorists," he said as he began another term as president after
national elections held in only regime-held parts of the country.
But for more than a year, Assad withheld attacking the stronghold as
the Islamic extremists, and allowed its leaders to raise their black
flags over the government center, take over the courts and schools and
operate like a state within a state. Islamic State turned the town of
Raqqa into its capital and the province into a sanctuary for its
fighters, a base for ferrying men, arms and supplies back and forth to
Iraq and a launching pad for its June attacks into neighbouring Iraq.
With the loss of the base, Assad's options are diminished, and if he
seeks to regain control, he'll have to divert significant military
resources from other fronts where his forces are attacking fighters of
the US-backed Free Syrian Army.
It will be all the more difficult, for Islamic State captured an
enormous arsenal of weapons after its attack on Mogul, Iraq, in early
The Islamic State offensive relied on its familiar tactic of
deploying suicide bombers to break open entrances into the
well-fortified base. Suicide bombers were deployed for three days
running, but on Sunday, the operations commander, identified as Al
Dagestani, used the tactic to blow open a gap in the fortifications to
the south of the base, which allowed regime troops to escape, the
Islamic State official said."