U.S.-backed Syrian fighters made a sweeping advance against militants linked to the Islamic State on Sunday in Syria’s eastern Deir Ezzor province, capturing territory just miles from the provincial capital and possibly facing an advancing Syrian regime army.
Oil-rich Deir Ezzor province borders Iraq and is a strategic prize for both the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Russian-supported government troops.
The SDF announced on Saturday it had begun clearing ISIS from areas east of the Euphrates River, which cuts diagonally across the province.
By Sunday, fighters from the SDF’s Deir Ezzor Military Council (DEMC) had seized much of the province’s northeast, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“They seized control of a hilltop four miles from the eastern banks of the Euphrates, across the river from Deir Ezzor city,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, who heads the Britain-based monitor.
He attributed the quick gains to the fact that “eastern parts of Deir Ezzor are desert and not densely populated”.
The DEMC’s advance is being backed by the U.S.-led coalition battling ISIS in Iraq and Syria since 2014, while its Russian allies are supporting the regime’s push on the city.
The coalition, the SDF, Syria’s government and Russia have agreed on a “de-confliction line” in northeastern Syria to prevent the two assaults from clashing.
Regime forces on Sunday were locked in fierce clashes with ISIS southwest of the city as they prepared a push into neighborhoods still held by the jihadists, the Observatory said.
According to the War Media channel operated by regime ally Hezbollah, Syrian troops seized full control of the 450-kilometre (280-mile) road linking the capital to Deir Ezzor for the first time in four years.
“The Syrian army and its allies now control the entire international highway between Deir Ezzor and Damascus, through the cities of Al-Sukhna and Palmyra,” it said, referring to other central Syrian cities recaptured from ISIS.
“The international highway had been unusable in the area between Al-Sukhna and Deir Ezzor for four years.”
The Observatory said on Sunday that at least 34 civilians had been killed in Russian strikes targeting ferries crossing the Euphrates in the Al-Boulil district southeast of Deir Ezzor city.
Since 2014, ISIS has held about 60 percent of the city and much of the surrounding province.