Many reports have surfaced since the fall of Tabqa Airbase, including pictures by the Islamic State media depicting the capture and execution of Syrian Arab Army soldiers at the base. After thoroughly examining the events that took place on August 24th; it left a great deal of ambiguity for the author: why did reinforcements arrive and why did they evacuate the same troops the next day?
The information regarding Tabqa Airbase was not clear and the many reports issued by different news outlets had varying numbers of dead SAA soldiers. Some claimed as many as 500 soldiers were killed during the battle, others as low as 150. According to a source, 34 confirmed soldiers were killed prior to the capture of Tabqa Airbase; another 42 were killed during the evacuation, approximately 125 soldiers left at the airbase. The 125 were believed to have been summarily executed by Islamic State militants.
How did this happen?
According to a military source, the Syrian Arab Army Central Command deployed Special Forces on August 22nd to assist in securing the M-42 Highway leading to the city of Salamiyyah in the Hama Governate. The SAA was successful in ambushing the Islamic State in the southwest corner of the base, killing a large number of militants in the process.
After news of the SAA’s success; it is believed that Sheikh Ibrahim Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi ordered his men to abandon their posts in east Homs in order to reinforce troops at Tabqa Airbase. Soon, contingents from Deir ez-Zor and Homs poured into the Ar-Raqqa Governate, helping to reinforce the militants in the southeast corridor of the base.
The number of Islamic State fighters was overwhelming, with some reports indicating up to 2,000 militants besieged the airbase at one time. While, it is not confirmed, the Syrian Arab Army Central Command had two choices: evacuate the men from the airbase or stay and fight, risking the possibility of losing more soldiers. On this same day, Syrian State Television filmed the men at Tabqa Airbase, depicting high morale and strong fortifications. Perhaps, unbeknownst to them, the SAA troops were preparing for an early morning evacuation.
The plan was set in four waves, allowing for the men to evacuate safely and efficiently from Tabqa Airbase. Approximately 240 soldiers had successfully exited the base, heading west to Salamiyyah on the M-42. Violent firefights erupted during the third wave, as the Islamic State exposed a weakness in the SAA’s defenses on the eastern front. Many soldiers were unable to leave the base, forcing them to take up permanent positions to combat the large Islamic State contingents.
The soldiers left at the base lacked the proper provisions to fight for a long duration, as they eventually ran short of ammunition during the I.S. onslaught; this forced them to surrender to the militants. For the soldiers remaining at the base, many were officers that were instructed to evacuate during the fourth wave. The Islamic State would later show footage and post pictures of the captured men – many of them with visible wounds – asking them if they are “Nusayri” (a sectarian word used to describe the Alawi Muslims as heretics), sons of “mut’ah” (temporary marriage), and if they knew who their father was. These same men that were degraded and attacked were later executed by the Islamic State.
The Islamic State militants were under the instruction of the I.S. military commander, ‘Umar Al-Shishani (Chechen descent). Al-Shishani was broadcasted to the fighters before their final charge towards the base; the speech was aired in three different languages. The I.S. militants were able to capture a large cache of weapons left at the base, later posting pictures of themselves with the hardware.
Causalities were high for both sides during the week long battle: the Islamic State is believed to have suffered very high causalities during the multiple airstrike campaigns by the Syrian Air Force. At least 400 Islamic State fighters were killed during the battle of Tabqa; while the Syrian Arab Army suffered approximately 200 causalities (number may ultimately rise in the coming days).
The Syrian province of Ar-Raqqa is now mostly under the control of the Islamic State, with the YPG (Kurdish Militia) soldiers in control of parcels of land in the north. Firefights were reported on M-42 Highway between SAA soldiers and Islamic State fighters; however, it does not appear that the SAA is planning a counter attack as of now.