ISTANBUL — Islamic extremists captured a major government military airport in Raqqa, eastern Syria, on Sunday, 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 U.S. 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” the airport.
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 authorized Islamic State spokesman, said the regime had stationed 873 soldiers on the base.
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 soldier’s head.
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 on display.
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-Qaida 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 traveling in the Arab world. It’s not clear if Curtis, whose book, “Undercover Muslim: A Journey into Yemen,” published in Britain, had any journalistic affiliation.
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 neighboring 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 U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army.
It will be all the more difficult, for Islamic State captured an enormous arsenal of weapons after its attack on Mosul, Iraq, in early June.
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 Daghstani, 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.