After weeks of fighting, Islamic State forces finally took the Syrian airbase at Tabqa in Ar-Raqqa Governorate, where it has been routing the Syrian army. Taqba is the latest base seized by the Islamic State, cementing its grip on Raqqa. It forced the army's 17th Division from its base on July 25; two days later, the campaign overran a major artillery position held by Regiment 121, capturing an arsenal of weaponry and munitions; it then captured the Brigade 93 base on August 7.
This is obviously bad news for Syria — among other things, Tabqa's loss deprives Syria of radar coverage and air defense in that region, making its forces pretty unaware of any flights incoming from Turkey. But while the recent defeats are an immense blow to the Syrian military, they're an even bigger deal for the Islamic State.
Footage released following the capture of the Brigade 93 base. Warning: Graphic content from 11:15 on.
Although the Islamic State bills itself as a for-real, no-kidding country, it ain't quite there yet. As an insurgent group that now stands head and shoulders above al Qaeda in giving people the willies, it's also managed to make nice with exactly zero countries, give or take a couple. Because the Islamic State can't buy massive amounts of weapons like normal nations, it has adopted an acquisitions-and-procurement strategy that consists of beating the crap out of someone else's army and then taking all of their stuff.
The big breakthrough in their looting campaign was routing Iraqi forces near Mosul in early June. Since then, the Islamic State has been able to convert this smash-and-grab approach into success after success, seizing one base and then using its captured arms to take the next.
The fall of Brigade 93 netted the Islamic State a ton of tanks and armored vehicles, while Regiment 121 was a bounty of artillery and ammunition. These resources were instrumental in the Islamic State's victory at Tabqa.
The seizure of the airfield has attracted more than the usual amount of attention because it was an operational Syrian air force base, and the Islamic State guys were supposedly able to seize SA-16 MANPADS (man-portable surface-to-air defense systems), Mig-21 combat aircraft, and K-13 air-to-air missiles (a Russian knock off of the widely used American Sidewinder missile).
The seizure of this particular equipment has created something of a stir. If nothing else, it means that there's now some pretty concrete evidence to suggest that the Islamic State has actual surface-to-air missiles and can shoot down enemy jets. Estimates haven't yet emerged about how many missiles they might have captured, but even a few of them can have a dramatic impact — imagine the effect of Islamic State militants shooting down a US jet over Iraq, followed by the subsequent capture and beheading of the pilot.
But the aircraft are another matter. There were some aircraft on the ground in the photos, but they don't look to be in very good repair. It's entirely possible that the Syrian air force was able to evacuate aircraft before the base fell. It's also unknown whether the Islamic State or its allies have anyone to fly the planes.
So there's not a lot to suggest that the capture of this airbase will bring the imminent appearance of an Islamic State air force. If it somehow does, it remains an open question how well it will hold its own against the Syrian and Iraqi forces, let alone those of the US and its allies.
Overall, the fall of the base is super important to ISIS in terms of consolidating their hold on Raqqa. The reported capture of the MANPADS is also important, but how the significance of the development depends on the type and quantities captured, and the militants' ability to employ them. The least important aspect — at least for right now — is the likelihood of captured aircraft. Even if the jets are up to the quality of those in the Syrian and Iraqi air forces and the jihadis can get them up in the air (which is a long shot), it's not as though they have the skills or equipment to bomb Moscow or Berlin or something.
Capturing the airfield doesn't mean the Islamic State has an air force — but it might mean they can put a stop to one.
Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan