Syrian army, allies thrust east to break siege in Deir al-Zor city

By Ellen Francis and Laila Bassam

BEIRUT (Reuters) – With a sudden lunge through jihadist lines, the Syrian army and its allies on Monday came to within 3 km of relieving the Euphrates city of Deir al-Zor, where Islamic State has besieged 93,000 civilians and an army garrison for years.

The advance on the eastern city marks another stinging setback for the once-triumphant Islamic State, fast retreating in both Iraq and Syria as its self-declared caliphate crumbles.

Syrian troops were rapidly approaching the city, reaching a point 3 km (2 miles) away, state television said. Dozens of trucks loaded with food stood ready to enter the enclave in the city once government forces break the siege, it said.

(For a graphic on battle for control in Syria click http://tmsnrt.rs/2wyo0lw)

A military media unit run by Hezbollah, a key ally of Damascus, said the advancing forces were heading to the garrison’s camp on the city outskirts.

Deir al-Zor’s provincial governor told Reuters he expected the army could reach the city within hours.

“Islamic State is in confusion. There is no leadership or centralized control,” said a commander in the military alliance supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Hemmed in on all sides, Islamic State, which ruled over millions of people in both Iraq and Syria at its peak in 2014, is falling back on a last Euphrates stronghold downstream of Deir al-Zor city 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 now yielding street after street in Syria’s Raqqa – the ultra-hardline group has still been able to launch attacks in the West and maintain a threat in other centers such as Libya.

The fighters have been driven out of nearly all of their territory in Iraq over the past two years by government forces backed by a U.S.-led coalition. In Syria, they are fighting against both Assad’s Russian-backed government and a U.S.-backed Arab and Kurdish militia that has launched an assault on Raqqa.

In the IS-encircled pocket in 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. Islamic State then overran rebel positions and encircled the army’s enclave in the city in 2014.

It was a major prize. Deir al-Zor is the center of Syria’s oil industry, a source of…

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