Sun, Nov 05, 2017 - Page 1 News List

Syrian, Iraqi forces near Islamic State redoubt

AFP, DEIR EZZOR, Syria

Iraqi soldiers advance toward al-Qaim, in Iraq’s western al-Anbar Governorate near the Syrian border, on Friday.

Photo: AFP

Syrian and allied forces yesterday converged on holdout Islamic State (IS) group fighters in the Syrian border town of Abu Kamal, the militants’ very last urban bastion following a string of losses.

On Friday, Russian-backed Syrian regime forces took full control of Deir Ezzor, the last city in which the Islamic State still had a presence after being expelled from Hawija and Raqqa last month.

The borders of a “caliphate” that three years ago spanned territory in Iraq and Syria roughly the size of Britain further shrank on the group’s surviving fighters when Iraqi forces retook al-Qaim on Friday.

The town lies along the Euphrates River in western Iraq and faces Abu Kamal, which is where many of group’s remaining fighters are thought to have regrouped in their debacle.

The Syrian Army and allied militia groups were still about 30km from Abu Kamal, but Iraqi paramilitaries crossed the border to take on the Islamic State, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

“Fighting pitted Hashed al-Shaabi [Popular Mobilization Forces] units against the Islamic State in the Hiri area,” observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said.

Hashed al-Shaabi are a paramilitary umbrella group dominated by Shiite militia outfits loyal to Tehran.

Hiri lies just across the border from al-Qaim on the outskirts of Abu Kamal, now the last town of note still fully controlled by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s extremist group.

Abdel Rahman said the Islamic State was able to pin back the Iraqi forces.

The Syrian regime forces, backed by intensive Russian airstrikes, are advancing on Abu Kamal from an oil pumping station in the desert west of the town.

Kurdish-led US-backed fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces were making fresh gains further north in Syria’s eastern Deir Ezzor Governorate, the observatory said.

The Euphrates River Valley border area was the heart of the caliphate the Islamic State proclaimed in 2014 and is now its last redoubt, where a US-led coalition supporting the military effort said about 1,500 militants remained.

The parallel offensives have sent thousands of civilians fleeing, some of them straight into the desert.

Sonia Khush, Syria director of charity Save the Children, said an estimated 350,000 people have fled the recent fighting in Deir Ezzor Governorate, half of them children.

“The situation in the city and surrounding countryside has been especially bleak, with civilians trapped between the fighting and all too often caught in the crossfire,” she said.

While Iraqi forces made light work of al-Qaim, Abu Kamal is now the last urban bastion the extremists have and it is unclear how much resistance they can or intend to put up.

The US-led coalition said anti-Islamic State forces would hunt down the militants to the last one.

“The coalition must and will deny IS safe haven in Iraq and Syria,” coalition spokesman Colonel Ryan Dillon told reporters.

Surviving Islamic State fighters are expected to hide in the desert area straddling the border and go dark for some time.

The group has retained its capacity to carry out suicide bombings in cities such as Damascus and Baghdad, as well as to inspire high-profile attacks in the West, such as this week’s Manhattan truck attack.

Despite its defeats on the battlefield, analysts have warned that the Islamic State is not down and out in the absence of a political vision to ensure stability in Iraq and Syria.

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