ABU FAS (SYRIA) (AFP) – US-backed fighters launched a new offensive on Saturday to oust the Islamic State group from swathes of Deir Ezzor, the last Syrian province still largely under jihadist control.
The oil-rich province borders Iraq and is a strategic prize for many, including the Russian-backed Syrian troops that are battling for its western half.
The new assault comes with IS under growing pressure in Syria and neighbouring Iraq after a string of defeats.
The jihadists have lost more than half of their de facto Syrian capital Raqa and all of Iraq’s second city, Mosul.
On Saturday, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced they had begun fighting to clear IS from territory east of the Euphrates River, which runs diagonally across Deir Ezzor province, cutting it in half.
“We are taking the first step to liberate territory east of the Euphrates River in Deir Ezzor,” Ahmad Abu Khawlah, who heads the SDF’s Deir Ezzor Military Council (DEMC), told AFP.
“Pivoting towards Deir Ezzor was inevitable.”
Abu Khawlah said US-led coalition air strikes had already helped his forces advance “around 30 kilometres (20 miles)” in the first day of “Operation Jazira Storm.”
Military operations on Saturday were focused in the hilly desert area in northeastern parts of Deir Ezzor province, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based monitor.
“Clashes are ongoing and coalition air strikes are hitting jihadist positions to allow the SDF to advance on the ground,” said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.
– ‘No safe haven’ –
Since 2014, IS has held swathes of the eastern province and about 60 percent of the provincial capital, Deir Ezzor city.
The coalition has bombed IS targets in Syria and Iraq since 2014 and is now backing the SDF’s offensive to capture Raqa.
The SDF has seized around 65 percent of Raqa city, which lies directly west of Deir Ezzor province.
“Daesh will have no safe haven in the Euphrates River Valley,” coalition spokesman Colonel Ryan Dillon said, using the Arabic acronym for IS.
“We continue to support our SDF partners as they fight to liberate their lands and homes from IS,” Dillon told AFP.
Saturday’s announcement came as Russia-backed Syrian troops wage a separate offensive to oust IS from the west of Deir Ezzor province, as well as the provincial capital.
Abu Khawlah said SDF forces were not coordinating with the government or with Russia on military operations.
But the coalition, the SDF, Syria’s government and Russia have agreed on a “de-confliction line” in northeast Syria to prevent them clashing.
According to the coalition, the line runs from Raqa province southeast along the Euphrates River towards Deir Ezzor.
“The de-confliction line with the Russians is necessary in the complex and congested battlespace over eastern Syria,” Dillon said.