|Daesh loses last towns in face of twin Syria, Iraq assaults|
DEIR EZZOR: Daesh on Friday lost control of the last two 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 Daesh in its former heartland, leaving Abu Kamal, on the Syrian side of the border, the last town of note under its control.
The militant 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 Raqqa 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 organisation’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 neighbourhoods to clear mines and other explosives.
Syrian forces entered Deir Ezzor city in September, breaking a Daesh siege of nearly three years on government-held parts of the provincial capital.
A reporter contributing to AFP inside the city on Thursday saw entire floors of buildings that had crashed into those beneath, while on others, facades were completely blown away to reveal empty, destroyed interiors.
Trenches dug by Daesh fighters were still visible, as were army minesweepers working to locate and defuse explosives laid by the militants.
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, Daesh militants 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.
Daesh 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 Abu 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.
Daesh, 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 Raqqa to the US-backed SDF, a highly symbolic blow that illustrated how its “caliphate” has disintegrated.
In Deir Ezzor province, it 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 on Friday, within hours of seizing an important border crossing nearby, military commanders said.
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 Daesh fighters fleeing from Al-Qaim crossed the border and sought refuge in Abu 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 militants 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 Daesh 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 still around 30 kilometres from Abu Kamal. Their advance on Abu Kamal is being supported by Russian air power.