BEIRUT, July 23, (Agencies): Syrian government forces and their allies have recaptured territory from Islamic State in countryside southeast of its stronghold Raqqa after air strikes in the area, a pro-Damascus military media unit and war monitors reported.
The advances towards the provincial boundary between Raqqa and Deir al-Zor took place late on Saturday, the media unit, run by Damascus ally Lebanese Hezbollah, and the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The army seized an oil field in the Sabkha area as part of the advance.
It was a rare advance for Damascus’s forces in that area, which is close to territory controlled by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-dominated alliance separately fighting Islamic State. It also brings government forces closer to Deir al-Zor province, another Islamic State stronghold.
The Syrian army has active front lines with Islamic State in western Raqqa province and has made recent gains there.
Incidents between the Syrian military and SDF last month raised tension between Washington and Damascus and its ally Moscow.
Separately in the north of Syria, one of the country’s most complicated battlegrounds, Turkish-backed Syrian rebels are fighting US-backed Kurdish forces over control of some areas along the border, in clashes that threaten to distract from the fight against Islamic State.
The Kurdish YPG militia, which forms the largest part of the SDF, controls much of northeastern Syria after capturing vast tracts of land from Islamic State.
The US-led coalition will have “a great deal more” to do in Syria even after defeating the Islamic State in its northern Raqqa bastion, a deputy commander of the coalition said Sunday.
“DAESH is not defeated with the liberation of Raqqa. The defeat of DAESH was not completed with the liberation of Mosul” in Iraq, British Major General Rupert Jones told reporters, using an Arab acronym for IS.
Speaking in the town of Ain Issa 50 kms (30 miles) north of Raqqa, Jones said: “We know as an international coalition there’s still a great deal more to do here in Syria.”
He said that the US-backed Arab-Kurdish alliance known as the Syrian Democratic Forces “have proved themselves to be a reliable counter-DAESH partner”.
“We will continue to work with the Syrian Democratic Forces to complete the defeat of DAESH,” Jones said.
The US-backed forces have successfully routed IS from several areas in Syria since their creation in 2014.
They have spent months encircling Raqqa, the de facto capital of IS’s Syrian territory since 2014, and finally broke into it in early June, seizing several neighbourhoods.
But for the past week they have encountered fierce resistance from the jihadists, and progress has also been hampered by the presence of civilians trapped in Raqqa city centre.
“It is every bit as tough as we expected but there’s no surprise in that so there are not currently any plans for us to divert more, to require more forces,” Jones added.
He also said the “protection of civilians” was of key concern to the coalition.
According to the coalition, 603 civilians have been killed in US-led strikes on Iraq and Syria since the air campaign against the jihadists was launched towards the end of 2014.
But Airwars, a London-based collective of journalists and researchers that tracks civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria, says 744 civilians were killed in coalition strikes in Syria and Iraq in the month of June alone.
A former al-Qaeda affiliate took control of the northern Syrian city of Idlib on Sunday two days after agreeing to end fighting with a rebel group, a monitor said.
“Ahrar al-Sham (the rebel group) withdrew from the city of Idlib which is now under the control of (the jihadist) Hayat Tahrir al-Sham,” Rami Abdel Rahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told AFP.
This week saw fierce clashes between Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham across much of Idlib province, including at the key Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey, before a truce was announced late Friday.
Syria’s regime carried out air raids on one of the last rebel strongholds near Damascus Sunday, a monitor said, a day after it declared a ceasefire in parts of the besieged enclave.
The Syrian army on Saturday announced a halt in fighting for parts of Eastern Ghouta, a rebel-held region on the outskirts of the capital that has been ravaged in the six-year conflict.
“Regime warplanes targeted the area of Ain Terma with at least six strikes since early morning, and two raids were carried out on and around the city of Douma,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said.
The Britain-based monitor, which relies on sources in Syria for its information, did not report any casualties.
Regime shelling also hit the outskirts of the town of Jisreen on Sunday, the Observatory said, after regime artillery and rocket fire on areas including Ain Terma and the town of Harasta on Saturday after the ceasefire started.
President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have surrounded the Eastern Ghouta region for more than four years, and regime forces have regularly targeted the area.
Assad’s forces have for weeks been fighting rebels on the outskirts of Ain Terma, which links Eastern Ghouta to opposition-held parts of the Damascus district of Jobar.
Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said no jihadist forces were present in the areas targeted by regime bombardment.
The army announced a halt in fighting in areas of Eastern Ghouta on Saturday from midday local time, but did not say which areas exactly would be included.
The ceasefire announcement came after regime ally Russia said it had reached a deal with “moderate” rebels on the boundaries and policing of the safe zone.
It said the sides had also agreed “routes to supply humanitarian aid to the population and for free movement of residents”.
But no rebel group yielding influence in Eastern Ghouta said they had signed that agreement.
The rebel enclave is in one of four proposed “de-escalation zones” designated in a deal reached by government allies Iran and Russia and rebel backer Turkey in May.
But the accord has yet to be fully implemented over disagreements on policing the safe zones.
A ceasefire was implemented in another “de-escalation zone” in southern Syria on July 9, but none has so far been announced for the northwestern province of Idlib or parts of the central province of Homs.
More than 330,000 people have been killed in Syria since its conflict broke out in March 2011 with anti-government protests.