BEIRUT — Islamic State militants launched an attack overnight on a major military air base in eastern Syria in what looked to be a push to eliminate the last significant government outpost in the extremist-dominated region, activists said Thursday.
The airfield just outside the city of Deir el-Zour is a key military facility for President Bashar Assad, giving his warplanes a hub from which to bomb IS-held cities and towns across much of eastern Syria. For the Islamic State group, capturing the airport would eliminate the main pocket of resistance in the area and provide a major morale and propaganda boost after a string of setbacks in recent weeks.
The assault against the air base began under the cover of darkness with a suicide car bombing against a Syrian military position on the airfield's outskirts, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
"They are trying to take the airport," said Observatory director Rami Abdurrahman. "This is a bigger attack from IS."
The Local Coordination Committees, an activist collective, also reported the fighting. Both groups said heavy clashes raged amid government shelling on the villages surrounding the airfield.
The Observatory, which relies on a network of activists on the ground, said at least 19 government troops and seven IS militants were killed in the fighting.
Syrian state TV said that armed forces had carried out several concentrated attacks against IS fighters in Deir el Zour, killing large numbers of them and destroying their equipment. It also said the military seized vehicles and heavy weapons.
If the attack does indeed mark the start of a major IS push to capture the air base, the Syrian government may be forced to decide how much to invest in holding onto the outpost in territory otherwise dominated by the jihadi group.
Earlier this summer, IS militants captured a series of Syrian military bases outside the northeastern city of Raqqa, giving them full control of the eponymous province. The extremists then killed hundreds of Syrian troops captured in those battles, shooting many in mass killings while beheading others and parading their bodies through IS-held towns and cities.
The government came under unusually heavy criticism from its supporters following those losses.
The fight against the Islamic State emerged as a major regional and international crisis after the militants seized control of much of northern and western Iraq this summer, adding to the territory they already controlled in Syria. In July, the group declared the establishment of a proto-state ruled by a violent interpretation of Islamic law, and named IS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi the leader, or caliph.
Despite his prominent role, al-Baghdadi has managed to maintain a low public profile. He has only made one known public appearance, and little is known about his personal life.
That has contributed to the confusion surrounding reports this week about a woman and child in Lebanese custody who authorities have said are the IS leader's wife and child. An Iraqi official, however, has rejected the Lebanese statements, and says the woman is not al-Baghdadi's wife.
In the first official statement from a Lebanese official regarding the matter, Interior Minister Mohad Machnouk said late Wednesday that DNA tests have confirmed that a child held by authorities is indeed al-Baghdadi's daughter. He added that the child's mother, who is also in custody, was married to the IS leader six years ago for a period of three months, but that the two are no longer married.
Lebanese security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, had earlier said a son of al-Baghdadi was detained.
Speaking to Lebanon's MTV television, Machnouk said Iraq sent Lebanese authorities DNA samples from al-Baghdadi to test against the woman, identified as Saja al-Dulaimi, and the girl. He said the girl and two boys detained with al-Dulaimi are being held in a child care center.
Associated Press writer Zeina Karam contributed to this report.