DEIR EZZOR, Syria: The Islamic State jihadist group Friday (Saturday in Manila) lost control of two of the last major towns under its grip in Syria and Iraq, as Syrian troops and Iraqi security forces advanced in the Euphrates Valley border region.
The simultaneous assaults on Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria and Al-Qaim in western Iraq dealt fresh blows to IS in its former heartland, leaving Albu Kamal, on the Syrian side of the border, as the last town of note under its control.
The jihadist group that once laid claim to a self-styled “caliphate” spanning swathes of Syria and Iraq has seen its proto-state crumble in recent months under the pressure of multiple offensives.
In October, it lost its one-time de facto Syrian capital Raqa after an assault of more than four months waged by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-Arab alliance.
On Friday, Syria’s army announced that its Russian-backed assault had recaptured all of Deir Ezzor city, in the oil-rich east of the country, while Iraqi forces captured the Husaybah border post and the nearby town of Al-Qaim.
“The army forces… restored security and stability to all of Deir Ezzor city,” a spokesman for the Syrian army command said in a statement broadcast live on state television.
“Deir Ezzor represents the final phase in the complete elimination of Daesh,” the statement added, using the Arabic acronym for the group.
The city “was the headquarters of the organization’s leadership, and in losing it, they lose their capacity to direct terrorist operations”, it added.
State television said engineering units from the army were combing captured neighborhoods to clear mines and other explosives.
Syrian forces entered Deir Ezzor city in September, breaking an IS siege of nearly three years on government-held parts of the provincial capital.
The battle has been ferocious, with heavy Russian air strikes and Syrian artillery fire leaving much of the city in ruins.
Iraqi forces take Al-Qaim
Before Syria’s war began in March 2011 with anti-government protests, around 300,000 people lived in the city, the capital of Deir Ezzor province along Syria’s eastern border with Iraq.
But in 2014, IS jihadists seized the city and much of the surrounding province, including vital oil and gas fields that once served as a key source of revenue for the extremists.
IS has now been driven from most of its strongholds in Deir Ezzor, but it still controls more than 35 percent of the province, much of it empty desert.
Its last major position is the town of Albu Kamal, though it also holds a string of smaller towns and villages and at least one oilfield, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor.
IS, which at its peak controlled territory roughly the size of Britain, has suffered a string of losses in recent months in both Syria and Iraq.
On October 17, it lost the city of Raqa to the US-backed SDF, a highly symbolic blow that illustrated how its “caliphate” has disintegrated.
Despite its defeats on the battlefield, analysts are warning that IS is not down and out in the absence of a political vision to ensure stability in Iraq and Syria.
“This absence of a long-term strategy leaves Daesh (IS) a lot of room for regrouping in the near future, while continuing to work its networks of supporters around the world,” said Jean-Pierre Filiu, a professor at Sciences Po university in Paris.
In Deir Ezzor province, IS is under attack from both regime and SDF forces, while across the border in Iraq it had retained a foothold in just a single town, Al-Qaim, after losing its stronghold of Mosul in July and the town of Hawija in October.
Iraqi forces captured Al-Qaim within hours of seizing an important border crossing nearby, military commanders said on Friday.
Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider Abadi hailed what he called “the liberation of Al-Qaim in record time.”
Iraq’s Joint Operations Command said earlier that troops had “regained full control” of the Husaybah border post on the edge of Al-Qaim.
The Britain-based Observatory said several trucks with dozens of IS fighters fleeing from Al-Qaim crossed the border and sought refuge in Albu Kamal.
Government forces launched the operation last week to seize Al-Qaim and its surroundings, a barren pocket of desert along the Euphrates near the Syrian border.
The jihadists have been squeezed into nearby Rawa and surrounding desert areas of the two towns in Iraq’s vast Anbar province.
The US-led coalition has said around 1,500 IS fighters are left in the area, which it expects to be the scene of the “last big fight” against the group in Iraq.
On the other side of the border, Syrian regime forces are now around 30 kilometers (18 miles) from Albu Kamal. Their advance on Albu Kamal is being supported by Russian air power.
On Friday, four members of the same family were killed in an air strike on an IS-held village south of Albu Kamal, the Observatory said, without identifying the aircraft.