x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 25 November 2017

Convoy of ISIL fighters reaches Deir Ezzor as Syrian troops continue to push into city

Deir Ezzor is increasingly under siege from US-backed forces to the north and Russian-backed Syrian government forces from the west

Smoke rises from buildings in the area of Bughayliyah, on the northern outskirts of Deir Ezzor on September 13, 2017, as Syrian forces advance during their ongoing battle against ISIL. After breaking an ISIL blockade, Syria's army is seeking to encircle the remaining jihadist-held parts of Deir Ezzor city. George Ourfalian/ AFP
Smoke rises from buildings in the area of Bughayliyah, on the northern outskirts of Deir Ezzor on September 13, 2017, as Syrian forces advance during their ongoing battle against ISIL. After breaking an ISIL blockade, Syria's army is seeking to encircle the remaining jihadist-held parts of Deir Ezzor city. George Ourfalian/ AFP

A group of 300 ISIL fighters and civilians have reached jihadist-controlled territory in the eastern Syrian city of Deir Ezzor after spending more than two weeks trying to get there, a source from Lebanese group Hizbollah told The National.

Deir Ezzor is increasingly under siege from US-backed forces to the north and Russian-backed Syrian government forces from the west in separate campaigns that have made significant progress in and around the city.

Colonel Ryan Dillon, spokesman for the US-led coalition fighting ISIL in Iraq and Syria, said he was unable to confirm whether the convoy that was transporting the fighters had reached Deir Ezzor.

Both Reuters and Agence France-Presse cited Syrian government sources saying that the convoy had reached Deir Ezzor, but did not specify the route it had taken or whether all of the 17 buses which originally made up the convoy had arrived.

The US military had bombed roads to prevent the convoy from reaching ISIL territory, but said last week that it had stopped monitoring the buses at the request of Russian officials. The US and Russia maintain a demarcation zone that runs roughly along the Euphrates, with US-backed forces fighting on the east side of the river and Russian-backed forces fighting to the west.

The buses began crossing Syria on August 28 after an evacuation deal was struck between ISIL and Hizbollah, which is fighting alongside the forces of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad. The deal included providing information on the location of 10 Lebanese soldiers presumably killed by the jihadists, returning the bodies of Hizbollah and Iranian fighters and releasing Hizbollah fighters held prisoner by ISIL.

Meanwhile, Hizbollah-affiliated media announced on Thursday that one of those prisoners, Ahmed Matouq, had arrived in Lebanon.

Col Dillon criticised the Syrian government and Hizbollah for negotiating a deal with the jihadists.

“The regime was complicit in allowing them to link up with other ISIL fighters,” Mr Dillon said.

But those reinforcements may matter little as the Syrian government’s troops and allied militia, backed by Russian air power, are fighting inside Deir Ezzor after having broken a years-long ISIL siege against a military base on the western side of the city in the last week.

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Read more:

While Hizbollah celebrates its victory against ISIL in Lebanon, Syrians and Iraqis must prepare for next showdown

US-backed forces, Syrian army advance separately on ISIL in Deir Ezzor

Syrian army breaks years-long siege of Deir Ezzor airbase

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LiveUA Map, which monitors developments in Syria’s six-year-old civil war, reported the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) had reached the northern suburbs of Deir Ezzor on Wednesday, putting them within a kilometre of territory recently captured by the Syrian government. One report put the two forces so close to each other that only the Euphrates separated them.

Col Dillon declined to specify exactly how far the SDF had progressed, but said they had “reached their objective” in an operation that was announced on September 9 to clear ISIL fighters from the Khabur River valley. The Khabur flows south into Syria from Turkey, joining the Euphrates about 40 kilometres south of Deir Ezzor.

Since then, SDF forces appear to have quickly advanced about 130 kilometres from the city of Al Shadadi to the outskirts of Deir Ezzor.

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Read more: Saudi Arabia, Russia agree on importance of Syrian de-escalation zones

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"[ISIL fighters] have concentrated their efforts on urban areas. The areas that have been ceded, if you will, is open territory, open ground,” Col. Dillon said. “They will put up a fight but they’re not going to fight to the last man in some of these open crossroad areas.”

By comparison, SDF forces fighting in the city of Raqqa since June control a little more than 60 per cent of that city, one of ISIL’s last strongholds in Syria.

“It doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you get into this very difficult fighting, progress is made literally building by building,” Col Dillon said. “Over the course of the last week, SDF have cleared 36 city blocks in Raqqa.