Islamic State strengthens control in Syria

The seizure of the Tabqa airbase highlights the Islamic State’s consolidation of power in eastern Syria, analysts say.

Islamic State fighters took control of Tabqa airbase after a five-day battle against the Syrian army [Reuters]

Beirut, Lebanon – The Islamic State group’s seizure of the Tabqa airbase in the northern Syrian province of Raqqa, after a five-day battle with the Syrian army, has raised fears the group could soon move deeper into the war-torn country.

The fall of Raqqa came after the Syrian army retreated from the city’s 17th division headquarters in late July. “Since the June breakthrough in Iraq, Islamic State has been striving to consolidate its control over eastern Syria,” said Aron Lund, a Syria analyst focusing on opposition movements.

“It cleaned out significant rebel pockets from the Euphrates towns in the Deir al-Zour province,” Lund told Al Jazeera. “There is still one significant pocket of support for Assad left: the Deir al-Zour airport and some southern neighbourhoods of the city itself. If they capture that, eastern Syria is pretty much all in Islamic State hands.”

There is still one significant pocket of support for Assad left: the Deir al-Zour airport and some southern neighbourhoods of the city itself. If they capture that, eastern Syria is pretty much all in Islamic State hands.

by - Aron Lund, Syria analyst

After the Islamic State group declared victory on Sunday afternoon, images appeared on social media showing Islamic State fighters erecting flags and inspecting burnt-out regime planes within the military facility.

In the town of Tabqa, victory parades were held and fighters fired shots into the air and distributed money to local residents. Similar scenes were seen at Neem Square in Raqqa, the provincial capital 30km away, where the Islamic State has been known to display the crucified bodies of combatants and civilians.

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Nadim Shehadi, an associate fellow at the London-based Chatham House, said that the timing of Islamic State’s seizure of Tabqa is significant. “In recent weeks there have been talks of international alliances with the Syrian regime to fight Islamic State. Now suddenly the Syrian regime is offering itself as a firefighter against the group,” Shehadi told Al Jazeera.

Meanwhile, the Syrian government’s official news agency (SANA) declared that the army had completed a “successful withdrawal” from Tabqa and inflicted heavy losses on Islamic State fighters. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a London-based monitoring group, said at least 346 Islamic State fighters and more than 170 government forces had been killed in the fighting.

On Monday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem expressed the Assad regime’s willingness to work with regional states and the international community in order to combat the Islamic State, while warning the US not to conduct air strikes on the group without Damascus’ consent.

US officials have since stated that President Obama has given the go-ahead to carry out surveillance flights over Syria, a course of action that could pave the way for airstrikes against the Islamic State in the country. “The Assad regime’s propaganda to portray the opposition as terrorists has now become a self-fulfilling prophecy,” said Shehadi, reflecting on developments.

Raqqa has come to be regarded as the Islamic State group’s de facto home province in Syria, since the group wrestled control from a coalition of rival Syrian opposition factions, including Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra, in October 2013.

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Lana Fakih, a spokesperson for Human Rights Watch based in Beirut, noted that activists and international charities have been forced out of the province as the Islamic State group has asserted its authority.

A local group called Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently maintains a presence in the city, however. With 16 members, the group has documented violence in Raqqa, photographing Islamic State public executions with camera phones, and uploading them to the web.

Abu Ibrahim, a founding member of the group who spoke to Al Jazeera via Skype and under a pseudonym, fled Raqqa last week amid fears Islamic State fighters would target him. A relative was able to secure him a visa to Russia.

While opposed to the Islamic State group, Abu Ibrahim said the group’s control of the Tabqa airbase would stop Syrian government air strikes emanating from the base. “I am happy the airport has fallen. A lot of people were killed in aerial bombing by planes flying from Tabqa,” he said. “But the oppression will not stop. Under the Assad regime, we lived in fear, but public institutions remained open, providing opportunities for the people. Now people are scared to leave their homes.”

But the fall of Tabqa, so far, has not provided residents respite from regime aerial bombardment.

Ahmed, a former internet cafe owner who has remained in Raqqa, said via Skype that Syrian airplanes remained active. “There were two air raids on Sunday beginning at five in the afternoon, centred on Neem Square,” said Ahmed, who didn’t give Al Jazeera his real name.

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The Islamic State group has also seized territory in Aleppo province from rival rebel groupsin recent weeks.

Both Ahmed and members of the group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently expressed the belief that the fall of Tabqa could pave the way for an assault on Hama, Syria’s fourth city, located west of Raqqa province. However given the gains made by Islamic State fighters since its advancement into Iraq in June, a slowdown in military expansion could also take place, as the group seeks to consolidate its rule over territories under its control.

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“It really is all guesswork at this stage,” said Sakhr al-Makhadhi, a British-Arab journalist and Syria analyst. “The Islamic State recently called for professionals – doctors, engineers and such – to move to its territory, so it’s clear that they view this as a long-term state building project. What this shows is that they’re lacking certain skills. They may have the manpower to fight, but not to build a state.”

Prior to the Islamic State’s advances in Iraq, officials in the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) argued that direct altercations between the group and the Assad regime were infrequent.

But as the Islamic State group has grown in strength, the two forces have increasingly been drawn into direct conflict. The FSA’s presence in Raqqa has also been eliminated after the Islamic State’s advance.

Speaking to Al Jazeera after the fall of the Syrian army headquarters in Raqqa in July, Omar Abu Leila, a spokesman for the FSA’s operations in eastern Syria, viewed growing animosity between the Syrian regime and Islamic State as a positive development.

“Let them fight and destroy each other,” Abu Leila said. “Both parties have greatly harmed the revolution. The FSA has tried to protect the revolution and has fought against the Islamic State [group] and the Assad regime for a long period of time without receiving any considerable material support from the international community.”

According to Sami Nader, a professor of economics and politics at Beirut’s St. Joseph University, the Islamic State group’s consolidation of power in Raqqa, coupled with the group’s progress in Iraq and international outrage after the recent execution of American journalist James Foley, could facilitate efforts to reach a political settlement in Syria.

“Perhaps because of the savagery of the Islamic State phenomenon, it could boost the political process… through a revival of the Geneva II conference [peace talks]. Despite Islamic State advances, this has happened in Iraq with the removal of [Prime Minister Nouri al-] Maliki from power,” Nader told Al Jazeera.

“However unlike in Iraq with Maliki, it is difficult to see an alternative to Assad because he still has support, particularly among the Alawite community. The Americans also have far more leverage in Iraq and any collaboration between the United States and Iran in Syria will be far more difficult.”

Meanwhile, speaking from Raqqa via Skype, Ahmed said local people lacked any optimism towards a political settlement. “People here have lost hope in a future. We do not know what to think. We are just trying to live day-to-day.”

Source: Al Jazeera