BEIRUT - ISIS fighters have advanced toward a key Syrian regime airbase in the desert west of Palmyra after retaking the UNESCO World Heritage Site in a shock victory over the weekend.
On Monday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that ISIS troops have “almost completely surrounded” the T4 military airport, one of the largest and most important in the war-torn country.
The monitoring NGO added that ISIS was “attempting to advance and storm the airport” amid heavy regime artillery fire and airstrikes, without going into further details on the fighting.
Meanwhile, the A3maq news agency affiliated with ISIS touted gains outside the airbase, claiming that the extremist group seized the village of Marhatan outside T4, mountains north of the facility as well as the Jihar junction to the east.
Pro-rebel media outlets also reported that ISIS was nearing the airbase, with Step News saying midday Monday that the jihadist group was on the outskirts of T4 after making gains following the fall of Palmyra on Sunday.
Qasioun News, for its part, reported that “fierce clashes were raging between ISIS and pro-regime forces on the outskirts of the T4 military airbase,” adding that the extremist group was seeking to seize the facility.
“Russian jets conducted a series of raids in the vicinity of T4 in a bid to halt the ISIS advance,” the pro-opposition outlet added.
On Sunday, unconfirmed reports circulated pro-opposition outlets that regime forces had begun to evacuate to the base and redeployed a number of jets to the Shairat airbase a little over 60 kilometers to the east.
Pro-regime media, however, has not reported the evacuation of T4, with only smaller non-state outlets admitting that ISIS was advancing toward the airbase.
ISIS previously launched a major offensive against the T4 facility in the summer of 2015, but failed to breach defensive lines at the well-guarded airbase.
The Syrian regime has exerted considerable effort to bolster the defense of the facility, which is “close to being an impenetrable fortress,” according to a report by the Oryx Blog published by Bellingcat.
In May 2016, ISIS claimed that it destroyed four helicopters in the T4 airport, which was denied by the Syrian regime. However, satellite imagery acquired by Stratfor indicates that the attack caused severe damage to the airbase.
NOW's English news desk editor Albin Szakola (@AlbinSzakola) wrote this report. Amin Nasr translated Arabic-language source material.