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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 June 2018

Syrian government takes last ISIL-held town in Homs

Capture of Al Sukhna clears the way for advance on the ISIL-beseiged city of Deir Ezzor

The highway leading from the Syrian capital Damascus to Homs, where government troops and allied forces drove ISIL from it last stronghold in the province on August 6, 2017. Mahmoud Taha / AFP / August 3, 2017
The highway leading from the Syrian capital Damascus to Homs, where government troops and allied forces drove ISIL from it last stronghold in the province on August 6, 2017. Mahmoud Taha / AFP / August 3, 2017

ISIL fighters withdrew from city of Al Sukhna in eastern Syria on Sunday in the face of an offensive by Syrian troops and allied militia, clearing the way for an advance on the last province to remain largely under the extremist group's control.

The recapture of Al Sukhna in Homs, Syria's largest province, was reported by both the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group and a media outlet associated with Hizbollah, which fights on behalf of the Syrian government.

Al Sukhna lies on the main road between the city of Tadmor and Deir Ezzor, the capital of the eastern province of the same name where government forces have been besieged by ISIL since 2015.

ISIL first gained ground in Homs in late 2014, when it pushed toward the province capital and threatened an important government airbase nearby.

Though ISIL controlled more rural than urban areas in Homs, much of which is desert, they took over gasfields in eastern Homs and in May 2015 overran Tadmor, a city of about 50,000 that sits near the ruins of the ancient city of Palmyra. The group then famously used Palmyra’s ancient amphitheatre as a backdrop to film executions of soldiers and others deemed loyal to the Syrian government.

Syrian government troops and allied militia recaptured Tadmor in March.

On the far western side of Homs province, the Lebanese military shelled ISIL positions on Saturday and Sunday in an area of ISIL control that straddles the Lebanese-Syrian border. Those positions, near the northern towns of Ras Baalbek and Qaa, represent the last territory ISIL holds in Lebanon.

Hizbollah, which drove Al Qaeda-affiliated fighters out of their strongholds in northern Lebanon last week, has said it will fight ISIL from the Syrian side of the border and that it is ready to intervene on behalf of the Lebanese military from the Lebanese side as well.

Though the city of Homs was the site of large demonstrations against the government of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad in 2011 and a site of armed rebellion in 2012, the Syrian government recaptured it fully in 2014 after a long siege. Now the only major part of Homs province outside of Syrian government control is a rebel-held pocket north of Homs city that includes the cities of Houleh, Rastan and Talbiseh.

A ceasefire between rebels and the Syrian government went into effect in the area on Thursday but was broken repeatedly by both sides on Saturday and Sunday.

The area under the ceasefire was meant to be the third Russian-brokered “safe-zone” in the country. In recent weeks, Russia has helped arrange truces between the Syrian government and rebels in eastern Damascus and in south-western Syria. But on Saturday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported heavy shelling by government forces in the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta, saying it was the most serious violation of the ceasefire in that area since it began last month.

The London-based Al Sharq Al Awsatnewspaper reported Sunday that a meeting of Syrian opposition groups, supported by the United Nations, could be held in Saudi Arabia in October. Local deals like the ones brokered by Russia have largely sidelined the opposition activists outside Syria who once claimed to be the only legitimate representatives of the rebel groups battling Mr Al Assad.

The Russian-brokered ceasefires have also produced at least one defection from the array of US-backed rebel groups in Syria.

Shuhada Al Qaryatayn, a rebel group based at Al Tanf near the Syrian-Iraqi border, broke its ties with the US last month after being told that it could engage Syrian government forces following the implementation of a ceasefire in the area around Al Tanf. The US also participated in those negotiations.

The group's announcement led the US to demand the return of heavy weaponry it had provided. But it is not clear whether the group had actually done so.

The spokesman for US forces in Syria and Iraq, Col Ryan Dillon, said on Sunday that Shuhada Al Qaryatayn "have returned heavy weapons and other equipment provided by the Coalition and been allowed to maintain some small arms and light vehicles”.

However, the group has denied that it had any heavy weapons to hand over, and Col Dillon could not specify what kind of weapons the group had given up.

* Additional reporting by Reuters