World Middle East First Look

ISIS strongholds in Syria fall to government forces

The self-declared ISIS caliphate continues to shrink as Syrian forces pushed ISIS militants out of the city of Deir el-Zour, one of the last ISIS strongholds in Syria. In Iraq, government troops are keeping up the fight in Qaim, a border town used by ISIS to traffic weapons. 

A shot from the SANA news agency in Syria shows the destruction of Deir el-Zour following a battle with ISIS militants in one of their last remaining in Syria.
SANA/AP
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Caption
  • Albert Aji and Zeina Karam
    Associated Press

The Syrian army announced on Friday it liberated the long-contested eastern city of Deir el-Zour from the Islamic State group, marking another defeat of the extremists as their self-proclaimed "caliphate" crumbles and almost all their urban strongholds in Syria and Iraq have been lost.

The recapture of Deir el-Zour on the west bank of the Euphrates River is also another victory for President Bashar Assad's forces, though largely symbolic 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 to be recaptured by the Syrian government from ISIS.

The extremist group has lost more than 90 percent 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 Shiite militiamen are chasing IS remnants inside the town of Qaim, on the Iraqi side of the border.

The militants, routed from one urban stronghold after another, 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 extremist group in the city.

Syrian government forces and their pro-government allies first broke the militant group's siege of their part of the city in September in a Russian-backed offensive, and have been advancing against IS positions since then. The city is the largest in eastern Syria and the capital of the province with the same name.

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.

The Islamic State'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.

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

Qaim, about 200 miles, west of Baghdad in the Euphrates River Valley and 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.

A statement posted on the Islamic State's news agency Aamaq on Friday claimed ISIS fighters have repulsed an attempted attack by the Iraq army south of Qaim, with IS fighters allegedly destroying an armored military vehicle and two other vehicles mounted with heavy machineguns.

Moscow's military involvement in the Syrian war since 2015 has propped up Assad's forces and turned the conflict in his favor, while Russian mediation earlier this year launched cease-fire 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.

"Army units, in cooperation 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 neighborhoods of Jamiayat and Jabiliyeh before they were liberated.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. 

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