Islamic State launches desert attack, repels Syrian army advances towards Tabqa

AMMAN: On Monday, Islamic State (IS) fighters halted the Syrian army’s march across the eastern desert towards Raqqa—IS’s de facto capital—forcing a more-than 20km retreat and pushing regime forces and their allies to the administrative border of Raqqa province.

Since June 2, regime forces captured dozens of kilometers of IS-controlled Raqqa province along the Ithriya-Tabqa highway, taking a series of villages, hills and strategic intersections, Syria Direct reported.

The first major stop in their campaign is Tabqa, whose airport is “the most important goal before moving towards Raqqa city,” Jameel Atallah, a journalist with pro-regime daily al-Baath told Syria Direct earlier this month from Hama city where he communicates with military sources.

The capture of Tabqa and its airbase—just 40km west of Raqqa—would represent a symbolic victory for the regime two years after IS publicly massacred over a hundred of its soldiers there.

However, on Monday, IS fighters launched a surprise attack at the a-Thawra oil fields, 12km southwest of the Tabqa military airbase, a few hours after the regime took control over the site.

 Islamic State fighters clash with regime forces south of Tabqa on Monday. Photo courtesy of Amaq.

IS fighters launched a series of coordinated strikes with car bombs, suicide bombers and landmines, multiple sources tell Syria Direct.

Retreating along the Ithriya-Tabqa road, regime forces reportedly now stand at Jabal Hurayba, approximately 45km east of Ithriya.

“IS intended to make it easy for the regime to advance on a-Thawra all in order to set a trap,” a local source in Tabqa told Syria Direct on Tuesday under the condition of anonymity.

Syria Direct cannot verify claims regarding IS strategy.

“The regime is on the defensive right now,” he added. “They are relying on airstrikes and shelling just to prevent IS from reclaiming more desert territory.”

On Monday, IS fighters allegedly killed 76 soldiers fighting with the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and allied militias, IS’s semi-official Amaq Press reported.

 IS fighters pushed regime forces out of the a-Thawra oil fields, south of Tabqa, on Monday. Photo courtesy of Amaq.

The attack purportedly led to the destruction of several tanks, armored vehicles and submachine guns. IS also commandeered two regime tanks, reported Amaq.

“This was the biggest attack since the start of the regime’s Tabqa campaign,” Salem a-Raqqawi, a citizen journalist from Tabqa, told Syria Direct on Tuesday.

Iran’s FARS news agency reported that the withdrawal of Syrian forces was a result of IS attacks and car bombs, which resulted in a number of regime fatalities.

Syria’s state media outlet SANA did not directly comment on the a-Thawra oil field battles; however, it did release a photo of Ali Abdullah Ayyub, the Chief of Staff of the Syrian Arab Army, meeting with soldiers along the Ithriya-Tabqa road.

While it is unclear whether Monday’s battle will have a long-term strategic effect on the regime’s march towards Raqqa by way of Tabqa, Syria Direct’s anonymous source inside Tabqa does not foresee the city falling any time soon.

“The strength of IS car bombs is intensifying, and their numbers are growing.”

Osama Abu Zeid

Osama Abu Zeid is a native of Homs, where he served as a media activist and founding member of the Homs Revolutionary Council after the Syrian uprising began in 2011.

Justin Schuster

Justin Schuster graduated from Yale University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Affairs and Modern Middle Eastern Studies. He was a 2015-2016 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. Justin worked as a reporter and translator with Syria Direct before serving as the Managing Director.