The Iraqi army isn’t the only one with morale and leadership issues. After being isolated in one of its last remaining airbases in the northern part of the country, Syrian forces finally got pushed out of the strategic stronghold overnight, forced to withdraw under fire. CNN reports that this marks what looks like the end of a long battle to seize control of the al-Tabqa airfield:
SIS fighters have seized control of a strategically important air base in Syria, tightening their grip on the northeastern region of the war-racked nation.
The Islamic extremist group, which has taken over large areas of Syria and Iraq, wrested the Al-Tabqa air base from the Syrian military on Sunday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based group that monitors the conflict.
Syrian state television reported that the Syrian military had evacuated the air base in Raqqa province to regroup and was still carrying out strikes against ISIS fighters in the area.
Did ISIS gain control of Syrian planes? The regime of Bashar al-Assad says no, but so far it’s not clear:
One Syrian military officer said there were an estimated 1,600 soldiers at the base before Islamic State launched the attack on Tuesday. Opposition activists in Raqqa said they saw at least three Russian-made Ilyushin cargo planes land and take off from the air base five days ago. A pro regime Facebook page known for its links to the country’s security agencies said many soldiers were “martyred” or captured by Islamic State but that all military planes and heavy weapons were moved out of Tabqa.
That’s not the only evacuation that took place. The WSJ’s Sam Dragher also reports that the withdrawal angered senior military commanders in Damascus, who thought the unit at Taqba had sufficient resources to repel the ISIS assault:
The Damascus-based military officer said he knew there was a sufficient force at the air base to fend off the Islamic State assault and faulted military leaders for abandoning the fight. He said both the air base’s commander and other senior military officers flew out of Tabqa on Saturday to another air base outside the central city of Hama.
“You can kiss goodbye any remaining confidence in the military leadership,” he said. …
The loss of the air base triggered a wave of anger among many Assad supporters, particularly members of his own minority Alawite sect, who blamed military and security leaders for abandoning the fight and leaving many soldiers to a brutal fate at the hands of the Sunni militants.
Islamic State fighters were seen parading in the town of Tabqa with the severed heads of soldiers killed at the air base, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition group tracking the conflict through its own network of activists inside Syria.
The news was better on the eastern front. Kurdish forces retook a handful of small cities from ISIS, backed by US airstrikes designed to push the ISIS forces west:
On Monday, Kurdish forces backed by Iraqi air support retook three villages in the Jalawla area in Diyala province, as well as a main road used by jihadists to transport fighters and supplies, a peshmerga brigadier general said.
He added that Kurdish troops are close to sealing off all entrances to the town of Jalawla itself, which they have sought to recapture for weeks.
Farther north, militants launched two assaults on the Shiite Turkmen-majority town of Tuz Khurmatu, late on Sunday and early Monday.
Both attacks were beaten back by Kurdish forces supported by Iraqi aircraft, officials said.
The Kurds, now reinforced by resupplied ammunition and air power, are proving themselves a much more capable competing force against ISIS than the Iraqis or the Syrians. If the US and the West wants to destroy ISIS or at least cut it off in the desert, the Kurds will be the best investment we can make. The new Iraqi government of Haider al-Abadi has pledged to seek real unity and power-sharing with Kurds and Sunnis, but we’d better make it clear to Abadi that we have a plan B in Kurdish independence if he doesn’t meet those commitments.