Syrian army reclaims last ISIL stronghold Deir Ezzor
The Syrian army announced on Nov. 3 that it retook Deir Ezzor, the last major city where the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) had a presence, as Iraqi forces punched into the jihadists’ last urban bastion across the border.
The simultaneous assaults on Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria and Al-Qaim in western Iraq dealt fresh blows to ISIL in its former heartland, leaving Albu Kamal, on the Syrian side of the border, the last town of note under its full control.
Deir Ezzor, which had been divided into a government-held and an ISIL-held part for nearly three years, is the largest city in eastern Syria and the capital of the province with the same name. It is also the largest to be recaptured by the Syrian government from ISIL.
Syrian army spokesman Gen. Ali Mayhoub declared victory in Deir el-Zour, describing it as the “last phase” in the military’s campaign toward the complete annihilation of ISIL in Syria.
His statement, read on Syrian state TV, hailed the city’s recapture as a strategic win, noting its location on a crossroad linking the country’s eastern, northern and central regions, as well as an “oil and gas reservoir” - a reference to the province.
“With the loss of Deir Ezzor, Daesh loses its ability to lead terrorist operations by its militants who are now isolated and encircled eastern countryside of the city,” he said, using the Arabic name for ISIL, Reuters has reported.
The extremist group has lost more than 90 percent of the territory it once held in Iraq and Syria at the height of its power in 2014 and 2015, including Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in northern Syria.
It also comes as Iraqi forces are chasing ISIL remnants inside the town of Qaim, on the Iraqi side of the border.
The Iraq military’s Joint Operations Command said on Nov. 3 the army, along with Sunni tribal fighters and Iran-backed Shi’ite paramilitaries known as Popular Mobilization, had captured the main border crossing on the highway between al-Qaim and Albu Kamal.
They had also entered the town of al-Qaim itself, which is located just inside the border on the south side of the Euphrates. The offensive is aimed at capturing al Qaim and another smaller town further down the Euphrates on the north bank, Rawa.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi released a statement congratulating the armed forces for “entering into Al-Qaim and liberating” the border crossing.
An Iraqi army officer told AFP that the jihadists “deserted the border post after several of them were killed” and headed off into Syria.
Al-Qaim and the surrounding areas are the last remnants of the self-styled caliphate ISIL.
Iraqi forces backed up by air strikes from a US-led coalition launched the operation last week to seize back the strategically located pocket of barren desert along the Euphrates river.
The U.S.-led international coalition said the militant group now has a few thousand fighters left, mainly holed up at the border in al-Qaim and the town of Albu Kamal.
“We do expect them now to try to flee, but we are cognizant of that and will do all we can to annihilate ISIL leaders,” spokesman U.S. Colonel Ryan Dillon was quoted as saying by Reuters.
He estimated there were 1,500-2,500 fighters left in al-Qaim and 2,000-3,000 in Albu Kamal.
But both the Iraqi and Syrian governments and their international backers say they worry that the fighters will still be able to mount guerrilla attacks once they no longer have territory to defend.
“As ISIL continues to be hunted into these smallest areas ... we see them fleeing into the desert and hiding there in an attempt to devolve back into an insurgent terrorist group,” said Dillon. “The idea of ISIL and the virtual caliphate, that will not be defeated in the near term. There is still going to be an ISIL threat.”