U.S. and Syrian Allies Stormed Across a Lake, Then Overran This Key Air Base
The Syrian regime and ISIS fought each other for Al Tabqa—now the SDF has it
In late March 2017, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces captured Al Tabqa air base from Islamic State militants in northeast Syria with U.S. air and artillery support.
The operation followed an airborne assault across Lake Assad by 500 SDF fighters and U.S. troops— a bold maneuver and the first of its kind by the coalition in Syria.
U.S. military engineers are already repairing Tabqa— which is reportedly badly damaged— and may well use it as a hub, or launchpad, of some kind to support the SDF campaign against Raqqa, the Islamic State’s most important Syrian city and only 25 miles to the east.
It’s a strategy similar in kind, if not scale, to what the U.S.-assisted coalition in Iraq has practiced. During the summer of 2016, Iraqi troops recaptured the disused Qayyarah Airfield West, situated 40 miles south of Mosul, from ISIS in a large armored assault.
U.S. forces repaired Qayyarah— which had ceased functioning as a major air base following Saddam Hussein’s disastrous defeats in 1991 and 2003— transforming it into a logistical hub and fire support base for the Iraqi offensive in Mosul.
The United States also moved long-range M142 HIMARS rocket launchers to Qayyarah to support the Iraqi army’s drive north.
Back in Syria, American officials cited by Voice of America say that the U.S. military has already built a small airfield in the Syrian-Kurdish canton of Kobani, about 70 miles northwest of Raqqa. The Kobani base is “up and running” but remains a “work in progress,” one of the officials said. They also said that this base, not Tabqa, will play a similar role to Qayyarah.
However, the U.S. military has at least three other makeshift airfields in the region, according to VOA. The SDF expanded these locations to facilitate the delivery of supplies to the landlocked region. The airfield in Kobani is reportedly a busy airstrip for C-17 Globemaster IIIs and C-130 Hercules military transports.
Back in Iraq, Qayyarah was once a major airfield, built following the humiliating Arab defeat in the 1967 war with Israel. The base has massive runways, making it perfect for lending logistical support to the Mosul operation.
Tabqa has strategic importance too, albeit on a smaller scale.
The Al Tabqa flanking maneuver west of Mosul. Illustration via syria.liveuamap.com
As the Islamic State consolidated its control over the Raqqa province in the summer of 2014, the Syrian government put a priority on defending Tabqa, which was Assad’s foothold in the province. The regime retained almost 1,000 soldiers and a fleet of helicopters and MiG-21 fighter-bombers at the base.
In August 2014, Islamic State fighters using human-wave tactics swept into villages near the base, besieging it and forcing the isolated garrison to withdraw.
The fall of Tabqa, and the killing of nearly 300 Syrian soldiers, spelled the end of regime control in the entire province. This shocked government supporters in the coastal province of Tartus, who took to social media to bitterly condemn the regime for failing to hold onto that base.
Given its continued importance, the Syrian government in June 2016 launched an offensive toward Tabqa from the west, punching through thinly-defended ISIS lines until massed reinforcements— including tanks— from Raqqa city counter attacked.
The ferocious and unexpected ISIS assault was too much for the Syrian army, which had expected further light resistance and pulled some of its troops out to assist on other fronts. The Syrian army was forced into a humiliating retreat back out of the province.
Now, after the SDF and its American allies have captured the battered base and are forcing the Islamic State from the periphery, the site could well function as a firebase and a field hospital for SDF fighters requiring emergency evacuation.
Its close proximity to Raqqa also makes it much more valuable than the aforementioned airfield in Kobani. It’s closer to Raqqa than Qayyarah is to Mosul, and could potentially host artillery— which U.S. Marines have already brought to Syria with them.
The SDF will first have to clear the town of Al Thawrah, otherwise the U.S. military will have to move its guns to Tabqa by helicopter sling load–but that is well within the coalition’s capabilities.
One striking difference between the current U.S. military presence in Qayyarah and any potential future presence in Tabqa is who the United States is working with. The Syrian government is opposed to recent U.S. deployments of ground forces, even if just to expel the Islamic State from Raqqa.
This means that any U.S. deployment to Tabqa— as well as other airfields in Syria— is likely to be both ad-hoc and relatively brief. Unless, of course, Washington decides to confront any Syrian attempt to retake control over the northeast.