On Tabqa and Raqqa

Tabqa airbase liberation2 2017-03-26

Several days ago, following a brilliant surprise air and water borne raid, US-backed Kurdish YPG-led Syrian Democratic forces (SDF) landed to the south of Tabqa Dam, securing it before Islamic State (ISIS) jihadis could cause any damage to the structure. Now SDF has taken Tabqa airbase too.

Long-term observers of the war in Syria will agree that the fall of Tabqa airbase to ISIS in August of 2014 was one of the more infamous episodes of the war. The Assad regime had just lost Raqqa city and had withdrawn to the surrounded airbase—their last holding in the entire province. There were over a thousand soldiers trapped in the base with dozens of aircraft, tanks and artillery—not enough to stop the ISIS juggernaut.

The battle for the airbase began in mid-August 2014. ISIS had launched massive suicide car bombs at key points followed by waves of fighters. The regime aircraft took off from the base and bombed the attackers, while the army repelled them from the ground. This intense battle went on for days with accurate reporting hard to come by. By the time the Syrian army decided to fly all aircraft away and withdraw from the base, on foot, on 24 August, 500 Syrian soldiers were dead. Although suffering big losses as well, ISIS had claimed a huge victory.

Some of the more memorable images of war come from that battle, as ISIS propagated its victory online. (Soldiers running away and falling down in flat desert terrain, POV turkey shoot, ISIS vehicles chasing escapees, and armoured personnel carriers driving over hay-stacks under which soldiers were hiding.) An escaping soldier who had not abandoned his weapon raised it at the enemy before he was shot. In another act of defiance, a young POW said, “your end will come” before he was executed too. One army officer had said to TV, “reinforcements have arrived. It is all quiet here” only to be seen dead in a picture, 2 days later. Nearly 200 soldiers who were captured alive were marched naked and bare-feet in the desert, and executed on video. For the Assad regime, Tabqa was a rout and a blow to the government and to the strategy of maintaining isolated outposts.

In the scheme of the Syrian civil war, all of that is ancient history now. There is a new kid, SDF, on the block. The SDF represents the third way in Syria—a powerful, cohesive and credible alternative to the Assad regime and FSA jihadis. This emerging power enjoys the admiration, confidence, military and political support of both the US and Russia.

The daring SDF operation behind enemy lines is one of the most significant actions in Syrian Civil War, and it is full of symbolism. It represents deepening US-led coalition commitment to SDF forces, the combat capabilities of the Kurdish-Arab alliance, and a halt to the Syrian army advance on Raqqa from the south of the city.

Now that Tabqa is also taken, with relative ease, the US will have a new base of operations from where to launch strikes. There is no question left on which force is to advance on the ISIS stronghold now. Forget about Turkey shooting from the lips, Raqqa is for the SDF to liberate now.

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