As Battle for Raqqa Progresses, U.S.-Backed Forces in Syria Capture Key Airbase From ISIS

Syrian female fighter
A Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) female fighter stands with her weapon east of Raqqa city, Syria March 26, 2017. The coalition of Kurdish and Arab militias recaptured a key airbase from ISIS on Sunday. Reuters/Rodi Said

U.S.-backed Kurdish and Arab fighters in Syria seized control of a strategic airbase from the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) near the eastern city of Raqqa on Sunday.

The coalition, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is battling to defeat ISIS with the support of U.S.-led coalition aircraft and U.S. Special Forces advisers. The capture of the Tabqa military airport comes amid fears that the Tabqa dam, the largest in Syria, may be on the verge of collapse.

SDF spokesman Talal Silo told Reuters clashes were ongoing with militants both inside and outside of the airbase but claimed SDF troops controlled as much as "70 percent" of the compound.

The base, located some 25 miles west of Raqqa, has been in the extremist group's hands since August 2014 when it wrested control of the area from Syrian government forces. After seizing the base, ISIS fighters paraded Syrian regime soldiers in the desert before executing them.

It was Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's last stronghold in Raqqa province before ISIS captured the entire territory. The province is now divided between ISIS, Syrian regime and SDF control.

Tabqa dam remains in ISIS hands, but the city is hemmed in on three sides. The SDF is fighting ISIS in the village of Karama, 10 miles east of Raqqa. The forces remain stationed at Al-Baleikh Bridge, northeast of Raqqa, says Rami Abdulrahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a monitoring group with a wide network of contacts on the ground in Syria. He says SDF fighters are 12 miles from the edge of Raqqa to the north, and 18 miles to the northwest.

The U.S.-led coalition continues with its air campaign against the Islamic State even as it draws criticism for incurring civilian casualties. U.S. President Donald Trump is reportedly seeking to loosen restrictions on the U.S. military's ability to launch airstrikes on ISIS in Syria, but the issues presented by such a decision became clear last week when a strike killed 35 civilians at a school sheltering families in Mansoura village near Raqqa, according to the SOHR. The U.S. military admitted on Saturday that another likely killed 200 civilians in Mosul.

The anti-Assad Syrian National Coalition said in a statement Sunday that it was "increasingly concerned" with reports of civilian casualties caused by the U.S.-led coalition in its campaign to defeat the extremist group.

The coalition was also criticized for potentially damaging the Tabqa Dam on the Euphrates River, but the SDF denies that any of the coalition's airstrikes have hit the structure.

The Syrian government claims U.S.-led airstrikes have put the dam out of service, a potentially hazardous development for the region.

"Before the latest strikes by the Americans, the dam was working. Two days ago, the dam was functioning normally," Nejm Saleh, director of the Syrian government's General Authority of the Euphrates Dam, told Reuters.

"God forbid...there could be collapses or big failures that could lead to flooding," Saleh said.