BEIRUT, Sept 4, (AFP): Syria’s army battled the Islamic State group on the edges of Deir Ezzor Monday, seeking to break the siege of a government enclave and oust the jihadists from a key stronghold. The jihadist group has already lost more than half of its nearby bastion of Raqa to attacking USbacked forces, and the loss of Deir Ezzor city and the surrounding oil-rich province would leave it with only a handful of isolated outposts.
Deir Ezzor province borders Iraq, where IS has also been expelled from former strongholds Mosul and Tal Afar. The jihadists hold large parts of Deir Ezzor province, and more than half the provincial capital Deir Ezzor city, the remainder of which is controlled by the government and under IS siege.
Syrian troops backed by ally Russia have been advancing towards Deir Ezzor city on several fronts for weeks. By Monday afternoon, Syrian state media said troops were swiftly approaching the city. “The Syrian army has advanced towards Deir Ezzor to break the siege on it and is now just 3 kms (nearly two miles) from the city,” a breaking news alert on state television said. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said Syrian troops and allied fighters had arrived at the Brigade 137 base on the western outskirts of the city, and were battling to reach troops besieged by IS inside. A military source told AFP: “There have been multiple collapses of the DAESH (IS) line in the west of Deir Ezzor province, allowing the army to move quickly.”
“The siege on the government troops will be broken within hours,” the source added. A 31-year-old teacher inside a regime-held part of the city was ecstatic. “It’s the best day of my life to see the siege coming to an end. It was the heaviest burden on civilians,” Uday al-Ali told AFP by phone. “It’s a real day of celebration for the city.”
Syrian troops were also quickly advancing on another front, said the Observatory, adding they were some 12 kms from Deir Ezzor’s besieged military airport. Provincial governor Mohamed Ibrahim Samra, quoted by state news agency SANA, said besieged residents were already celebrating as the army neared. “Yesterday Deir Ezzor city saw celebrations and rejoicing among all segments of society ahead of the expected victory with the advance of the Syrian Arab Army to the outskirts of the besieged city,” he said.
The Russian defence ministry also reported that Syrian forces were advancing on the city, backed by Russian air strikes. “The fall of IS in Deir Ezzor will be a strategic defeat for the international terrorist group in Syria,” the ministry said in a statement. IS seized large parts of Deir Ezzor province, including its many oilfields, in mid-2014 as it rampaged across Syria and Iraq. By early 2015, it had also seized parts of Deir Ezzor city and laid siege to remaining areas under government control. The siege tightened further earlier this year, when IS advanced and cut the government-held parts of the city in two, with a southern section by the key military airport now divided from a northern sector. An estimated 100,000 people remain in government-held parts of the city, which had a pre-war population of some 300,000. The Observatory estimates more than 10,000 people may live in the parts of the city held by IS, although precise information is hard to come by. The siege has created a humanitarian crisis in the city, with food and medical shortages and soaring prices.
Meanwhile, fighters from a USbacked coalition battling the Islamic State group in Syria walk among heavily damaged buildings in Raqqa’s Old City as snipers on upper floors monitor nearby jihadist positions. The smell of decay rises from bodies of IS fighters killed in the battle for the key district as Syrian Democratic Forces field commander Ardlan Hasake patrols in an armoured Humvee. “We pushed DAESH out of the whole of Raqqa’s Old City. It was their strategic centre and their main base for foreign fighters,” he says, using an Arabic acronym for IS. “All their forces were here and they tried repeatedly to attack us in large numbers to retake it, but our comrades repelled their attacks.”