Syrian troops on Saturday broke the Islamic State (ID) group’s siege of Deir el-Zour military airport, dealing a fresh blow to the extremists who also face a new offensive from US-backed fighters elsewhere in the province.
Oil-rich Deir el-Zour Province borders Iraq and is a strategic prize for both the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Russian-supported Syrian government troops.
Since 2014, the IS has held swathes of the province and about 60 percent of its provincial capital, encircling two regime-held enclaves in the western half of Deir el-Zour city.
Government troops broke the siege of one of the pockets on Tuesday and began a new assault on IS positions around the strategic airbase on Friday.
On Saturday, the troops ended the IS’ encirclement of the airport, state news agency SANA said, “after forces advancing from the cemetery southwest of the city linked up with the forces holding the airbase.”
State television quoted the unnamed head of the airbase as saying the IS had fiercely attacked the airport for years.
“We will continue fighting until we recapture all of Deir el-Zour city,” he said.
Russia, a key Syrian government ally, said its warplanes had provided cover to the Syrian ground forces, carrying out “massive airstrikes” that helped the troops break the airport siege.
“Syrian government forces, with Russian air support ... inflicted a crushing defeat on the IS around Deir el-Zour, surpassing all the other victories achieved in the past three years,” it said.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the advance enabled Syrian troops to “link up all the neighborhoods they hold in western parts of Deir el-Zour city.”
The Syrian government’s progress in Deir el-Zour came as the IS faces growing pressure in both Syria and Iraq, where it has suffered a string of defeats.
The extremists have lost Iraq’s second city, Mosul, and more than half of their de facto Syrian capital, Raqa.
Deir el-Zour Province is the last one in Syria still largely under extremist control.
On Saturday, the SDF said it had begun clearing the IS from areas east of the Euphrates River, which cuts diagonally across Deir el-Zour Province.
“We are taking the first step to liberate territory east of the Euphrates River in Deir el-Zour,” Ahmad Abu Khawlah, who heads the SDF’s Deir el-Zour military council, told reporters. “Pivoting toward Deir el-Zour was inevitable.”
Abu Khawlah said US-led coalition airstrikes had already helped his forces advance “about 30km” in the first day of “Operation Jazira Storm.”
The commander of the US-led coalition, US Lieutenant General Paul Funk, welcomed the start of the SDF operation.
“The very existence of ISIS poses a real threat to the civilized world and our way of life,” Funk said in a statement, using another acronym for the IS. “Our collective effort will defeat them.”
Military operations were focused on the hilly desert area in northeastern parts of Deir el-Zour Province, the observatory said.
The coalition has bombed IS targets in Syria and Iraq since 2014 and is backing the SDF’s offensive to capture Raqa.
The SDF has seized about 65 percent of Raqa city, which lies directly west of Deir el-Zour Province.
“DAESH will have no safe haven in the Euphrates River Valley,” coalition spokesman US Colonel Ryan Dillon said earlier, using an Arabic acronym for the IS.
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