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ISIS, Squeezed on Two Sides, Loses Syrian City and Border Crossing

The developments also set the stage for a battle for the Syrian border town of Bukamal, on the strategic highway from Baghdad to Damascus, and what appears to be the end game for the remaining Islamic State territory in Iraq and Syria.

The seizing of Deir al-Zour punctuates the turnaround Mr. Assad has managed in more than six years of war. Just two years ago, the idea that the government would manage to take back the city seemed remote.

When the Syrian war broke out in 2011, soldiers were defecting from the Syrian army and only a fraction of the troops could be counted on for loyalty in the field. But Mr. Assad hit hard at rebel-held neighborhoods, pummeling Syrian cities with airstrikes with the support of Iran and its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah.

In 2015, Russia entered the war on Mr. Assad’s behalf, carrying out airstrikes against the Islamic State and other insurgent factions. Russia’s backing allowed Mr. Assad’s forces to focus on one front at a time. Once the non-Islamic State insurgents were contained, the pro-government alliance turned its attention to the Islamic State, which it has now mostly routed.

Still, Mr. Assad is faced with running a country that is still divided, politically and territorially, where major cities are devastated, the security forces deeply dependent on Russia and Iran, and the economy gutted.

Deir al-Zour

SYRIAN DESERT

Deir al-Zour

The government’s announcement of victory in Deir al-Zour came just weeks after an American-backed, Kurdish-led militia, called the Syrian Democratic Forces, took over the city of Raqqa, which had served as the de facto capital of the Islamic State.

The militants never controlled the whole of the city of Deir al-Zour, although they held most of the surrounding province, an oil-rich region that provided an important source of revenue to the Islamic State.

For two and a half years, though, the Islamic State had surrounded and besieged 200,000 civilians in the government-held section of the city. Its population dwindled to 90,000, the United Nations estimates, as people escaped or were smuggled out.

Now, the group’s most important territory is the border town of Bukamal and the border crossing on the Syrian side. Iraqi forces claimed the other side of the border on Friday, along with most of Qaim, Bukamal’s counterpart on the Iraqi side.

That battle for the remaining Islamic State territory could inflame tensions among the competing forces fighting the militants as they converge on the region: the Russian and Iranian-backed alliance that supports the Syrian government; the rival American-backed group, Syrian Democratic Forces, or S.D.F.; and the Iraqi forces that are pursuing Islamic State holdouts on their side of the border.

The stakes are high, with the competing armies seeking not only to vanquish the Islamic State, but also racing against each other to win influence in the strategic border zone.

Russia, which wants the Syrian government to reclaim all of its territory, and the United States, which wants to counter Iranian influence, have accused each other of firing at their respective allies on the ground.

The S.D.F., a Kurdish and Arab alliance, wants to seize as much territory as possible, including oil fields. Those resources and points of leverage could increase its chances of staving off a government takeover of the areas it holds, including Raqqa and the areas to the northeast where Kurds have carved out a measure of autonomy.

Iran wants the friendly Syrian government to control the area. With Iraq already a strong ally, Iran could establish a land route linking it with Lebanon, the base of its most powerful allied militia in the region, Hezbollah.

Once the Islamic State is driven out, cities like Raqqa may be the next front. A top Iranian official said Friday that the Syrian government and its allies would soon take Raqqa from the American-backed S.D.F.

Graphic

The Islamic State: From Insurgency to Rogue State and Back

A look at what the Islamic State controlled at different stages of its military dominance.

OPEN Graphic

According to IRNA, Iran’s semiofficial news agency, Ali Akbar Velayati, a foreign affairs adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader, said that Raqqa and its surroundings “will be liberated” and the Syrian government would take control. “The U.S. is planning to partition Syria,” the agency quoted him as saying. “It will never achieve anything in the field.”

The battle on the Iraqi side of the Iraqi-Syrian border on Friday involved Iraq’s elite counterterrorism units, the Iraqi army, the federal police and Iraqi paramilitaries supported by Iran. American military advisers have been working with the Iraqi army and special forces, and the United States provided air support to the Iraqi ground forces on Friday, according to Gen. Yihya Rasool, the spokesman of the Iraqi joint operations command.

The Iraqi chief of staff said the Iraqis’ advance gave them and their American-led coalition allies a forward operating position to monitor any remaining Islamic State fighters fleeing the converging armies.

An Iraqi Sunni tribal leader whose members also took part in the fighting said that the Islamic State’s foreign fighters had fled Qaim before the final push by the Iraqi forces on Friday. The leader, Sheikh Qutri al-Ubaidi, said that the majority moved their families across the Syrian border in the direction of Bukamal.

Sheikh Ubaidi said several Islamic State fighters remained in Iraqi territory, hidden along the banks of the Euphrates River that flows between the two countries. Several Islamic State supporters also fled Qaim in boats across the river toward Rumana, Iraq, he said.

As of Friday night, at least two Iraqi towns — Rumana, northwest of Qaim, and Rawa, to the east — were still under Islamic State control.

The news from Deir al-Zour cheered some of the tens of thousands of its residents who are displaced across Syria and the region, though, as with Raqqa, it did not mean they could go home any time soon, given the intense destruction and the danger of land mines and Islamic State sleeper cells that may remain there.

“We fled from the intensive bombings because we could not stay there any more,” said Alia Mohamed, 33, at a park in Damascus where she watched her 4-year-old daughter — one of her six children — run around as her husband tried to find a room for the family.

At a school shelter in Qudsaya, a suburb northwest of Damascus, Hosna Quray’a, who said that she had been displaced for two years, greeted the news with “great joy.”

“I want to return,” she said. “Most of my relatives left there, and I don’t know what happened to them.”

Ibrahim Haj Hussein, a 14-year-old from the government-controlled part of Deir al-Zour, traveled to the shelter eight months ago because his mother was sick. He left his father behind. The price of food was so high that his family had subsisted on a diet of bulgur wheat and rice, he said, adding, “The situation there was really tough.”

Source: NYT > World

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