US-backed SDF enters key IS-held airbase near Raqqa

US-backed SDF enters key IS-held airbase near Raqqa
SDF forces, backed by US-lead coalition airstrikes, are closing in on IS de facto capital of Raqqa, preparing for a decisive battle set to begin in the coming days.
4 min read
26 March, 2017
The US-backed SDF is leading an assault on the IS-held bastion of Raqqa [AFP]

The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced in a statement on Sunday that its forces had entered the Tabqa military airport west of the IS held city of Raqqa in northern Syria.

Spokesperson Talal Sino told Reuters that SDF forces had taken between "sixty to seventy" percent of the airport with fighting against IS militants positioned in the facility ongoing.

"We expect to control the airport in the coming hours ... it's an exposed area and this will make it easy for our forces to liberate it," said Silo.

Closing in on Raqqa

An official statement on the SDF's Facebook page said that its fighters had entered the base after several days of violent clashes with IS militants. 

Advances on the airbase come as a part of a major offensive launched by the SDF, and backed by the US-led coalition, on Raqqa, IS' de facto capital. 

Syrian regime forces withdrew from Tabqa airbase in August 2014, soon after IS took control of Raqqa.

Advances have been assisted by US-led coalition airstrikes, with SDF forces also air-dropped behind IS lines near Tabqa earlier this week. 

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On Wednesday, Coalition spokesman Colonel Joseph Scrocca said that three hundred airstrikes had been conducted around Tabqa and to the west of Raqqa, in the last four months.

SDF forces cut the final main road out of Raqqa earlier this month, and are closing in on the city from the north, east and west.

The only exit out of Raqqa now is over the Euphrates south of the city.

Adavances halted on Tabqa dam

On Sunday as SDF fighters entered Tabqa airbase advances on the nearby Tabqa dam were halted as clashes have damaged its power station, risking dangerous rising water levels.

"The dam is designed to hold a certain amount of water and if its floodgates are closed this will increase the water levels and could exceed the pressure the dam can withstand," civil engineer Mounir Suwaid, told The New Arab.

He played down the danger that the dam would collapse because of excess water levels, however, he added that the continued air raids could weaken the dam and lead to a disaster.

"The biggest danger lies in the repeated airstrikes and shelling near the dam, which could crack the dam's structure," the engineer said.

A statement posted on IS Amaq propaganda agency on Sunday called on residents to evacuate the city stating that the dam "is threatened with collapse at any moment because of American strikes and a large rise in water levels."

Decisive battle imminent

A decisive battle for Raqqa is expected to begin in the coming days.

Officials within the SDF have said this week that they will launch an assault on the city beginning in April.

Speaking on Friday French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said that IS militants in Raqqa were "surrounded" and that a decisive battle for the city was imminent

However, the US remains wary that entrusting the Kurdish majority SDF with the assault on Raqqa could alienate key NATO ally Turkey - which has permitted the US-coalition to use the Incirlik airport as a base to launch aerial assaults on IS positions.

Ankara has been angered by the US' decision to entrust the SDF with the Raqqa assault due to the fact that the coalition force includes the Kurdish YPG, which Ankara views as analogous to the Kurdistan Workers Party, which has waged an insurrection against the Turkish state since the 1980s. 

Since beginning its cross-border operations in Syria in August 2016, Turkish army troops and Turkey-backed rebels have clashed with the YPG on a number of occasions.

Turkish officials, on a number of occasions, have said that Ankara will reconsider the US-lead coalition’s use of Incirlik if it felt use of the base was against its interests.

"If you don't use the Kurds, it will take a lot longer while (Islamic State is) sending streams of terrorists out of Raqqa," Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said this week, touching upon the conundrum facing the Trump administration. 

"But if you do, you have an enormous challenge as far as relations with Turkey is concerned."

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is set to visit Ankara on Thursday to meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other senior Turkish officials. 

A statement put out by the US State Department said that Tillerson's visit will "reaffirm Turkey's important role in ensuring regional stability" and he will discuss the way forward with "our campaign" to defeat the Islamic State [IS] group in Syria and Iraq.