Syria Direct introduces its new partner Open Syria, which uses open-source material to document consequential events in Syria today from war crimes to weapons proliferation and military operations. Open Syria’s first investigation takes on the Islamic State’s August massacre of an estimated 160 Syrian army soldiers and officers following the capture of Tabqa military airbase, geo-locating here for the first time the exact execution site
“Traditional journalism aspires to truth, but ultimately relies on human narratives, which may be reshaped and retold from a variety of perspectives, sometimes contradicting each other,” says open-source analyst Joseph Adams. “Satellite imagery doesn’t lie.”
By Kristen Demilio and Joseph Adams
AMMAN: How did a province that remained firmly in the regime’s camp through at least October 2012 end up months later as Syria’s first to fall under full Islamic State control?
From the beginning of the uprising in Syria in March 2011, tribal leaders in the remote desert province of A-Raqqa in north-central Syria aligned with the regime.
“The government was able to control A-Raqqa and its rural areas in the early months of the revolution,” recalls a Raqqa-based activist.
A-Raqqa had begun absorbing internally displaced Syrians fleeing violence in neighboring provinces, but remained relatively quiet. Protests seizing the rest of the country eventually fizzled out in this desert city.
In June 2012, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad deemed A-Raqqa stable enough to pray at its mosque. As late as October 2012, local tribal leaders gathered in Damascus to pledge their loyalty to Al-Assad’s government, “reiterating their stand against the conspiracy…[and] all forms of foreign interference in Syria’s internal affairs,” the official Syrian agency SANA reported at the time.
But with regime forces losing battles in Syria’s north and east, it was only a matter of time until the fighting arrived in A-Raqqa. Various rebel groups were grabbing turf, but had yet to capture a provincial capital.
In early 2013, Jabhat A-Nusra announced its presence in Syria, and in A-Raqqa. On March 5, Nusra declared victory in the provincial capital. The regime fought back from the air, launching dozens of air strikes and barrel-bomb attacks on A-Raqqa city, but failed to dislodge the rebels.
Then, this past summer, the Islamic State made its way from Iraq into Syria, destroying the border in a sweeping military campaign to expand its so-called caliphate into Syria. The offensive began with the July 17 capture of the Shaer gas field roughly 45km northwest of Palmyra in Homs province. The victorious Islamic State summarily executed an estimated 300 captured regime soldiers and civilian employees, their bodies dumped in piles roughly 500m west of Shaer.
From battlegrounds at Palmyra and Shaer, the Islamic State turned northwest, to A-Raqqa province. The largely tribal, desert province fit the profile of an Islamic State target: a smaller, agrarian population, oil resources and the Tabqa Dam, which provides water and electricity for millions of Syrians.
Under the pretext of meeting with rival faction Jabhat A-Nusra to discuss the fate of A-Raqqa city over the summer, the Islamic State suicide-bombed the meeting, killing Nusra’s top leadership in the city and claiming the capital as its own. They celebrated by displaying the heads of the vanquished in the main squares of the city.
The Islamic State then began a lightning campaign to capture A-Raqqa province, launching a two-pronged attack against Division 17 and Regiment 121 on July 23 and July 24 of this year. The attack on Division 17 in A-Raqqa province, roughly 1.5km north of A-Raqqa city, began late at night on July 23 with twin suicide car bombs reportedly piloted by Saudi foreign fighters. Syrian army soldiers, trapped inside, fought to stave off the Islamic State assault.
Islamic State fighters transport prisoners to their final destination.
After two days of fighting, Division 17 fell to the Islamic State. Hundreds of Syrian army soldiers scattered to the safety of nearby villages still opposed to the Islamic State, or fled to the Syrian army’s 93rd Brigade, roughly 45km northwest of Division 17. An estimated 50 caught inside Division 17 were quickly killed, their heads removed and rammed on metal pikes lining the streets and parks of A-Raqqa city. More than 85 Syrian army soldiers died during the Islamic State’s final operation to capture Division 17, what was once the second-most heavily fortified regime outpost in A-Raqqa province after Tabqa military airbase, approximately 46km to the southwest.
As Division 17 was under siege, roughly 160km northeast in Al-Hasakah province, the Islamic State commander Umar Al-Shishani led a near simultaneous assault against Regiment 121, just hours after Islamic State suicide bombs exploded outside Division 17.
As the prisoners lay dying and dead, an Islamic State fighter walks the line and shoots them again.
Although precisely how the battle for Regiment 121 unfolded remains unclear, the Islamic State reportedly captured large swathes of the embattled Syrian army artillery base after one day of fighting on July 25. The Islamic State claims to have killed more than 100 soldiers at Regiment 121, today under the black flag of the Islamic State.
On August 7, the Islamic State blitzkrieg took large parts of Brigade 93, where hundreds of Syrian army soldiers had sought refuge following the capture of Division 17. Three days later, with Division 17, Regiment 121, and Brigade 93 firmly in its grasp, the victorious Islamic State turned to the last remaining regime outpost in A-Raqqa province: Tabqa military airbase.
The base was a strategic prize, with spoils of at least two MiG 21B warplane squadrons, six attack helicopters, a number of 130mm field guns, mortars, tanks, several BMPs and large stores of ammunition—especially tank and artillery ammunition, an A-Raqqa-based activist told Syria Direct last August.
As of the same month, “more than 90% of A-Raqqa has been liberated and the regime does not have any control outside its security facilities,” activist Zeid Al-Forati told Syria Direct at the time.
“If the Islamic State manages to liberate the airport, that will mean total Islamic State control over A-Raqqa province,” a well-known activist in the province told Syria Direct the same month.
On August 10, the Islamic State mounted a full-scale attack to bring down Tabqa airbase. Up to 800 Syrian army soldiers and officers, some of whom fled to Tabqa airbase after losing other military installations elsewhere in A-Raqqa remained trapped inside, with regime helicopters periodically dropping in packages of ammunition and supplies.
The Islamic State launched multiple suicide car bomb and infantry assaults over a period of two weeks until the defenses collapsed and the fighters made their way in. An estimated 350 Islamic State fighters and 170 Syrian army soldiers and officers were killed in the battle for the airbase.
The Syrian official news agency SANAconfirmed the loss of Tabqa airbase: “Our forces successfully regrouped after the airport was evacuated.”
Except that they didn’t. When Tabqa airbase finally fell to the Islamic State on August 24 of this year, hundreds of Syrian soldiers and officers escaped, but a few dozen were captured inside the base.
It is at this point in the story that Open Syria, the new open-source investigative unit of Syria Direct, takes over.
“The site where the Islamic State executed an estimated 160 Syrian army prisoners of war captured fleeing Tabqa airbase is not at the location that was originally reported in Arabic-language news and social media,” says Joseph Adams, Open Syria’s founder and lead open-source analyst. “Using natural and man-made features such as the position of the setting sun and the construction and configuration of transmission towers visible in Islamic State media, I was able to pinpoint the exact execution site.”
Over the course of the next week, Syria Direct and Open Syria present the full investigation into the events following the fall of Tabqa airbase, leading to the mass executions of approximately 160 Syrian army soldiers at a dirt embankment just outside A-Raqqa city.
The purpose of releasing this detailed investigation is not only to inform the public about the pattern of Islamic State massacres, but also to provide evidence to organizations looking to prosecute war criminals of all persuasions guilty of crimes in the Syrian civil war for which they will one day be held accountable.