Syrian army, allies close in on ISIL in Deir al-Zor
BEIRUT/MOSCOWSyrian troops seized a suburb of the eastern city of Deir al-Zor on Sept. 17, tightening the noose around Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a Syrian military source said.
The army pushed into the city this month with the help of Russian air power and Iran-backed militias, breaking an ISIL siege of an enclave there that had lasted three years.
On Sept. 17, the Syrian army and allied forces captured al-Jafra district on the western bank of the Euphrates river, the military source said.
“They have no outlet except crossing the Euphrates towards the eastern bank and fleeing towards the desert, or (the towns) al-Bukamal and al-Mayadin,” the source told Reuters.
Moscow and Washington are backing separate offensives in the oil-rich province of Deir al-Zor bordering Iraq. Both have advanced from opposite sides of the Euphrates which bisects the province, ISIL’s last major foothold in Syria.
Russian- and U.S.-backed offensives against ISIL have mostly stayed out of each other’s way, with the Euphrates often acting as the dividing line.
But the Pentagon accused Russia this week of bombing U.S.-backed forces on the river’s eastern bank.
Russia’s Defence Ministry rejected the allegations on Sept. 17. Moscow had warned the United States well in advance of its operational plans and its jets only targeted ISIL militants, it said.
Major-General Igor Konashenkov, a spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry, dismissed the allegations in a statement on Sept. 17.
Konashenkov said Russian planes had only carried out carefully targeted strikes in the area based upon information that had been confirmed from multiple sources.
“To avoid unnecessary escalation, the commanders of Russian forces in Syria used an existing communications channel to inform our American partners in good time about the borders of our military operation in Deir al-Zor,” Konashenkov said.
“In the last few days, Russian surveillance and reconnaissance did not detect a single clash between ISIL and armed representatives of any ‘third force’ on the eastern bank of the Euphrates,” he added.
Separately, Franz Klintsevich, a member of the upper house of parliament’s security committee, said there was no proof to underpin the accusations against Moscow.
Meanwhile, Russia’s RIA news agency cited an unnamed source as saying the Syrian army had cut ISIL’s main supply line in Deir al-Zor city.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said government forces took al-Jafra near the city’s air base overnight, though ISIL militants still hold nearly a third of the city.
Russian jets pounded movements across the river as ISIL fighters tried to escape in ferries, and many civilians, including families of the militants, had also tried to flee across the river in recent days, it said.
Separate air strikes by Russia and by the U.S.-led coalition killed more than 34 people, including children, across Deir al-Zor province over the past day, the war monitor said.