BEIRUT/ERBIL • Syrian troops yesterday retook the last major city where the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group had a presence in the country as Iraqi forces punched into the Islamists' last urban bastion across the border.
The simultaneous assaults on Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria and Al-Qaim in western Iraq dealt fresh blows to ISIS in its former heartland, leaving Al-Bukamal, on the Syrian side of the border, the last town of note under its full control.
Forces in Syria and Iraq, backed by regional states and global powers, now appear on the cusp of victory over the group, which proclaimed its authority over all Muslims in 2014 when it held about a third of both countries and ruled over millions.
A United States-led international coalition which has been bombing ISIS and supporting ground allies on both sides of the frontier said the militant group now has a few thousand fighters left, mainly holed up in the two sister towns in Iraq and Syria.
"We do expect them now to try to flee, but we are cognisant of that and will do all we can to annihilate IS leaders," coalition spokesman Ryan Dillon said, using an alternative acronym for ISIS.
He estimated that there were 1,500 to 2,500 fighters left in Al-Qaim and 2,000 to 3,000 in Al-Bukamal.
Yesterday, Syrian state media announced that the army, backed by Russian firepower, had recaptured all of Deir Ezzor city, in the oil-rich east of the country. Syrian forces entered Deir Ezzor city in September, breaking an ISIS siege of nearly three years. The battle has been ferocious, with heavy Russian air strikes and Syrian artillery fire leaving much of the city in ruins.
Even as the Syrian government assault was nearing completion, Iraqi forces entered Al-Qaim yesterday, military commanders said, unleashing a barrage of artillery fire along with Iraqi and US-led coalition air strikes.
Troops from the army and the elite Counter Terrorism Service "have started the assault on the centre of Al-Qaim", 7th Division commander Noman Abed al-Zobai said from the scene.
Driven this year from its two de facto capitals - Iraq's Mosul and Syria's Raqqa - both the Iraqi and Syrian governments and their international backers say they worry that ISIS will still be able to mount guerilla attacks once they no longer have territory to defend.
ISIS fighters executed at least 741 Iraqi civilians in Mosul, including women and children who had tried to flee, during the nine-month battle by government forces to retake the northern Iraq city, the United Nations said on Thursday.
The UN said the executed civilians were among at least 2,521 who were killed during the battle for the city, mostly from ISIS attacks, including indiscriminate shelling and the use of improvised bombs and explosive-laden drones.
The 53-page report, produced by the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, could be used for war crimes prosecutions.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS, NYTIMES