December 7, 2014

The likely fall of Syria's Dayr al-Zawr air base - another slaughter on the horizon?

ISIS self-proclaimed capital at al-Raqqah and the contested Dayr al-Zawr air base

Numerous media and the information (read: propaganda) office of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are reporting the imminent fall of Dayr al-Zawr air base. The loss of this air base would be a significant blow to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad.

As evident on the map above, Dayr al-Zawr is the key military installation in eastern Syria, even more key since the fall of al-Raqqah and the garrison of the 17th Division earlier this year. Al-Raqqah is the current, temporary self proclaimed capital of the Islamic State - re-establishing the caliphate in Baghdad remains the ultimate goal of the Islamist organization.

Since late 2011 and continuing until now, elements of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) have made repeated attempts to take Dayr al-Zawr air base, with varying degrees of success. While they were somewhat successful in taking ground near the base, attacking the base with mortars and artillery - even hitting aircraft on the tarmac - they were never able to breach the defenses and seize the facility.

Some history is in order. For years, the base has been low on the priority list of the Syrian armed forces. It is located in the center of Syria, far removed from the main areas of concern to Damascus - mostly focused on its neighbors Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

Most of the Syrian defense budget was spent on defenses in the southwestern and western part of the country - the expected avenues of attack from what it perceives as its principal threat, Israel. That perception was reinforced by the December 7 Israeli air attacks on two areas near Damascus.

In the mid-1970s when Syria began to fill the al-Asad Dam on the Euphrates River near Tabaqah (east of al-Raqqah), Iraq threatened military action against Syria because of the reduced flow of water. In the few months of increased fighter patrols and a few incursions by both sides, the base was an important facility. Additional - and more capable - fighter aircraft were moved temporarily to Dayr al-Zawr to confront Iraqi fighters. At that time, both sides were flying the Russian-built MiG-21.

After the al-Asad dam crisis abated and for the next four and a half decades, the base returned to its secondary priority status. It was mostly used as a civilian airport for those Syrians who did not want to make the six hour drive from Damascus. I have driven from Damascus to Dayr al-Zawr (and beyond) on numerous occasions - it is a long drive through the desert; beautiful, but long.

The importance of the base has taken on new meaning since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011. Opposition military attacks have taken place all over the country, virtually everywhere except in the heavily defended center of Damascus. Dayr al-Zawr governorate - center of Syria's oil industry - was no exception.

Since the fighting began, rebels sought to seize oilfields and oil processing facilities in the area. The Syrian regime reinforced the military garrisons in the area, including the 17th Division in al-Raqqah and the Dayr al-Zawr air base. There is a large air defense installation adjacent to the air base which houses the additional Syrian forces deployed to the area.

Dayr al-Zawr air base - ISIS has seized al-Jafrah to the east

Looking at imagery, it would appear that ISIS (or the FSA in the past) might have an easy time of moving from al-Jafrah across the highway to the air base. Actually, the army/air defense installation sits on a ridge that commands the entire area, complicating the situation for anyone approaching the air base. While the FSA was able to get as far as the outer defenses, they were always under the guns of the defenders dug in on the high ground.

If ISIS fighters follow their usual tactics, the group will lay siege to the air base and the adjacent air defense facility. When either the FSA or ISIS has cut off Syrian forces in the past, the Syrian Air Force attempted to drop ammunition and supplies by helicopter. However, because Dayr al-Zawr is remote and not near other Syrian air bases, this option may not be viable. The Syrians, as they did in al-Raqqah, will likely be forced to surrender.

Syrian soldiers being executed by ISIS after the fall of al-Raqqah 

In the past - in both Iraq and Syria - surrendering to ISIS has proven to be nothing but the prelude to a bloodbath. When Iraqi military units collapsed and many soldiers were taken prisoner, most of them were killed in gruesome displays of cruelty - that continues to happen in the Euphrates Valley in Iraq.

When the Syrian 17th Division garrisons were taken in al-Raqqah, ISIS went on a killing rampage, beheading scores of Syrian troops and simply machine-gunning others. Given that background, the Syrians may choose to fight to the last man.

If the military installations in Dayr al-Zawr fall to ISIS, I suspect there will be another slaughter, all captured on video and posted on social media.