Syrian army thrusts east to break siege of Deir al-Zor city
BEIRUT - ReutersWith a sudden lunge through jihadist lines, the Syrian military and its allies on Sept. 4 came to within three kilometres of relieving the Euphrates city of Deir al-Zor, where Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has besieged an army garrison and 93,000 civilians for years.
The advance on the eastern city marks another stinging setback for the once-triumphant ISIL, fast retreating in both Iraq and Syria as its self-declared caliphate crumbles.
Syrian troops were rapidly approaching the city on Sept. 4, reaching a point three km from their comrades in the city, state television reported.
Deir al-Zor's provincial governor said on Sept. 4 he expected the army to reach the city by Sept. 5 night. A military media unit run by the government's ally Hezbollah said the advancing forces were heading to the besieged garrison's camp on the city outskirts.
"ISIL is in confusion. There is no leadership or centralised control," said a commander in the military alliance supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Hemmed in on all sides, ISIL is falling back on a last Euphrates stronghold downstream of Deir al-Zor in the towns of al-Mayadin and al-Bukamal near the border with Iraq.
But as it has lost its core territory - defeated in Iraq's Mosul and yielding street after street in its de facto Syrian capital of Raqqa - the ultra-hardline group has still been able to launch attacks in the West and maintain a threat in other centres such as Libya.
In ISIL-encircled Deir al-Zor, news of the army's approach prompted people to take to the streets to celebrate, governor Mohammed Ibrahim Samra said by phone.
The city has been cut off since 2013, after rebel groups rose up against Assad during the first flush of Syria's six-year war. ISIL then overran rebel positions and surrounded the army's enclave in the city in 2014.
It was a major prize. Deir al-Zor is the centre of Syria's oil industry, a source of wealth to the group and a serious loss to Damascus. As the army has pushed east in recent months, oil and gas fields have once more fallen to the government.
ISIL fighters have stepped up efforts this year to seize the enclave before the army could arrive. In January, they managed to sever it from the military airbase in the city and take over a nearby hill, further straining its links to the outside.
During the long siege, the city has been supplied via high-altitude air drops. The United Nations said in August it estimated there were 93,000 civilians in the government's Deir al-Zor pocket, where conditions were "extremely difficult.”
"Despite all this and despite the shelling and injured, things are running in the city. The institutions are running, the bakeries. Water is also pumped twice a week to our residents, aid is distributed daily," governor Samra said.