Syrian army retakes one of ISIS's last remaining urban strongholds

The Syrian army said Friday it had liberated from ISIS the long-contested eastern city of Deir el-Zour, one of the militant group’s last remaining urban strongholds in Syria and Iraq.

The recapture of Deir el-Zour on the west bank of the Euphrates River is another victory for President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in the Syrian military’s bigger fight to capture most of the oil-rich province along the border with Iraq.

Deir el-Zour, which had been divided into a government-held and an ISIS-held part for nearly three years, is the largest city in eastern Syria and the capital of the province with the same name. It is also the largest city the Syrian government has retaken from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

The extremist group has lost more than 90 per cent of the territory it once held in Iraq and Syria at the height of its power in 2014 and 2015, including Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in northern Syria. It also comes as Iraqi forces and allied Shia militia personnel are chasing ISIS remnants inside the town of Qaim, on the Iraqi side of the border.

Retreating into the desert

The militants have recently been moving deeper into Syria’s remote desert, where experts say they are regrouping and preparing to return to guerrilla-style attacks including scattered hit-and-run and suicide bombings.

In a statement, the Syrian military said it was now in full control of the city, after a weeks-long campaign carried out with allied forces. It said army units were now removing booby traps and mines left behind by the militant group in the city.

Syrian government forces and their pro-government allies first broke ISIS’s siege of their part of the city in September in a Russian-backed offensive, and have been advancing against ISIS positions since then.

The Syrian army, backed by Russia and Iran, and Kurdish-led Syrian forces, backed by the United States, are now racing to take the rest of the oil-rich eastern province of Deir el-Zour, including the key town of Boukamal near the Iraqi border.

Fighting across the border

ISIS’s last territorial stronghold in Iraq was the town of Qaim, across the border from the Syrian town of Boukamal.

An Iraqi officer in Iraq’s western Anbar region said Friday that Iraqi forces have reached the border with Syria as they continue to close in on the pocket of militant-held territory.

Syria Deir el-Zour

Smoke and debris rise after Syrian government shelling of Deir el-Zour during a battle against ISIS militants in Syria, in an image from video released Thursday. (SANA via Associated Press)

The Iraqi forces are now pushing into western neighbourhoods of Qaim, the joint command said, and Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi pledged the battle will be finished within days.

Qaim, about 320 kilometres west of Baghdad in the Euphrates River Valley, has been used by ISIS to ferry fighters and supplies between the two countries at the height of the caliphate, when ISIS held nearly a third of both Iraq and Syria.

Russia’s role

A statement posted on the ISIS news agency Aamaq on Friday claimed ISIS fighters have repulsed an attempted attack by the Iraq army south of Qaim, with ISIS fighters allegedly destroying an armoured military vehicle and two other vehicles mounted with heavy machine guns.

Moscow’s military involvement in the Syrian war since 2015 has helped to prop up Assad’s forces and turn the conflict in his favour, while Russian mediation earlier this year launched ceasefire talks in Astana, Kazakhstan. The talks, sponsored jointly with Iran and Turkey, have brokered local deals that have significantly reduced violence in the war-torn country.

AFP_TW7XX

Iraqi forces and members of the Hashed al-Shaabi (popular mobilization units) advance toward the city of al-Qaim in Iraq’s western Anbar province as they fight against remnant pockets of ISIS jihadists on Wednesday.

“Army units, in co-operation with allied forces, liberated the city of Deir al-Zour completely from the Daesh terrorist organization,” the Syrian military statement said, using the Arabic name for ISIS.

Footage posted on the website of the Syrian state news agency SANA shows the last moments of the fighting between the Syrian army and ISIS in Deir el-Zour, including shelling by Syrian tanks and plumes of smoke rising over the city’s ISIS-held and mostly destroyed neighbourhoods of Jamiayat and Jabiliyeh before they were liberated.

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