Syrian army wrests control of airbase from ISIS militants

US-backed fighters planning final assault on Raqqa next month

BEIRUT • Syria's army captured an airbase in eastern Aleppo from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group yesterday, after more than two months of fierce clashes, a military source and monitor said.

The Jarrah airbase had been under ISIS control since January 2014, when the militants seized it from rebels, who had captured it a year earlier.

Meanwhile, US-backed fighters said they were preparing for a final assault on ISIS' Syrian bastion of Raqqa, likely next month, with new weapons and armoured vehicles promised by Washington.

Providing an overview of the Syrian army's operation yesterday, Mr Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor, said: "Regime forces took control of the Jarrah military airport after heavy fighting.

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"The majority of the jihadists have withdrawn, and regime forces are carrying out clearing operations in the airport and engaged in limited clashes with remaining IS elements." IS is an alternative acronym for ISIS.

Syria's army launched an offensive against ISIS in eastern Aleppo province in mid-January, backed by ally Russia. So far it has taken control of more than 170 villages and towns in the area, according to the Britain-based monitor.

A military source, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed the capture of the military base. The next key target for government forces in the area will likely be the town of Maskana, on the edge of Lake Assad.

Syria's army is just one of the forces battling ISIS in the country.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) earlier last week captured the city of Tabqa and an adjacent dam, a major prize in the offensive for Raqqa, the Syrian heart of ISIS' self-proclaimed "caliphate".

"The attack on Raqqa will take place in the beginning of the summer," SDF commander Rojda Felat said in Tabqa, which lies on the banks of the Euphrates River about 55km west of Raqqa. She later specified that it would probably start next month, based on "military and tactical considerations".

The battle for Tabqa was marked by fears that the dam adjacent to the city, which is the largest in Syria, would be severely damaged and collapse, leading to massive flooding downstream.

The SDF is working to tighten the noose around Raqqa before a final assault. At their closest point, the US-backed forces are just 8km from the city. They are backed by coalition air strikes, American special forces advisers and a US Marines artillery battery.

SDF deputy head Qahraman Hassan said his forces would receive "special weapons and armoured vehicles" to enter the city after President Donald Trump changed US policy to allow arms deliveries to the SDF's Kurdish component.

No newly authorised aid had been delivered yet, Mr Hassan said, but he added that "I believe this support will arrive soon".

A US defence official said last week that the equipment would include small arms, ammunition, machine guns, armoured vehicles and bulldozers.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 14, 2017, with the headline 'Syrian army wrests control of airbase from ISIS militants'. Print Edition | Subscribe