Another blow for ISIS as Syrian army retakes desert town

A fighter from the Syrian Democratic Forces standing guard in Raqqa last Friday. The city, which was a stronghold of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, was retaken last week by the United States-backed forces.
A fighter from the Syrian Democratic Forces standing guard in Raqqa last Friday. The city, which was a stronghold of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, was retaken last week by the United States-backed forces.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

DAMASCUS • Syrian troops and militia retook the desert town of Al-Qaryatain from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group yesterday, ending a three-week fight-back by the militants, state media said.

It was the latest in a string of reverses for ISIS in Syria this month that last Tuesday saw United States-backed forces capture its emblematic bastion Raqqa.

The militants had seized Al-Qaryatain on Oct 1 in a surprise counter-offensive against the Homs province town, which they had lost to Russian-backed government forces in April last year.

"Units of the Syrian Arab Army in cooperation with allied forces have restored security and stability in the town of Al-Qaryatain after eliminating the Daesh terrorists," the state Sana news agency reported, using an Arabic acronym for ISIS.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that more than 200 militants had pulled out of the town during the night, withdrawing into the vast desert that stretches all the way to the Iraqi border. There was no immediate word on the fate of the town's residents during the three-week reoccupation by ISIS.

Al-Qaryatain was a symbol of religious co-existence before the civil war broke out in 2011, with some 900 Christians among its population of 30,000.

But during their first eight-month occupation of the town between 2015 and 2016, the Sunni Muslim extremists of ISIS repeatedly targeted its Christian minority. That included abducting 270 Christians, and locking them up in an underground dungeon. The captives were freed 25 days later.

Government forces are currently engaged in twin Russian-backed offensives against ISIS, mopping up the last pockets it still holds in the desert and pushing down the Euphrates Valley towards the Iraqi border in the east.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 22, 2017, with the headline 'Another blow for ISIS as Syrian army retakes desert town'. Print Edition | Subscribe