Does Islamic State Now Have an Air Force?
A bloody assault by Islamic State forces captured the Syrian government air base in Tabqa, today, acquiring "several warplane squadrons, helicopters, tanks, artillery, and ammunition bunkers." An aviation "squadron," according to Wkipedia, is "a unit of aircraft that consists of three or four flights with a total of 12 to 24 aircraft, depending on the type of aircraft and the air force, naval or army air service."
Again, according to Wikipedia, the Taqba air base possessed 12 squadrons of the aging MIG-21 -- both combat fighters and trainers. The base also housed about 20 Mi-8 helicopters, probably a mix of transport and gunship models.
So Islamic State possesses several dozen aging, but effective MIG-21 fighters, several helicopter gunships armed with anti-tank weapons, as well as an unknown number of tanks and a lot of ammunition.
Certainly no match for American jets. The biggest question is, do they have the pilots to fly the machines?
Christian Science Monitor describes the battle:
The jihadis launched their long-anticipated offensive last week to seize the sprawling Tabqa facility, located some 45 kilometers (25 miles) from the extremists' stronghold in the city of Raqqa along the Euphrates River.
After several failed efforts to breach the walls in recent days, Islamic State fighters managed to punch through and storm the air base Sunday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Government warplanes carried out waves of airstrikes to try to beat back the attack, but those ultimately proved unable to stem the assault.
"Some of the Syrian regime troops pulled out, and now the Islamic State is in full control of Tabqa," said Observatory director Rami Abdurrahman. "This makes Raqqa province the first to fully fall out of government hands."
Another activist group, the Local Coordination Committees, also said the extremist group was in control of Tabqa.
The SANA state news agency confirmed that the government had lost the air base, saying troops "are successfully reassembling after evacuating the airport." It said that the military was still "striking terrorist groups, inflicting heavy losses on them."
The government had made significant investments in both weapons and manpower to try to hold onto Tabqa, making its fall a both a symbolic and a strategic blow.
Islamic State fighters had been closing in on the base for weeks. When the fight finally came, it was bloody.
The Observatory said that at least 100 Islamic State fighters were killed and another 300 wounded in the fighting, numbers that exclude casualties from the final assault. Abdurrahman said dozens of government troops also were killed Sunday alone.
Tabqa is the latest in a string of bases to fall to the Islamic State group as it strengthens its hold over a vast swath of territory in northern and eastern Syria. Last month, the extremists overran the sprawling Division 17 military base in Raqqa, killing at least 85 soldiers. Two weeks later, they seized the nearby Brigade 93 base after days of heavy fighting.
The group's trademark brutality was on full display after those victories. They killed army commanders and pro-government militiamen, decapitating them before putting their bodies and heads on display. The Observatory reported similar acts following the fall of Tabqa Sunday.
Since the Syrian military is going to try and take the base back, they probably haven't destroyed many of the armaments left behind. But the capture of the base is really bad news. IS has proved itself to be resourceful. If they don't have men who can fly the jets, they can hire people who can train them. The same goes for the helicopters.
If Islamic State now possesses an air force, it could tip the balance their way in Syria and Iraq. The nightmare just got a little blacker.