First Published: 2017-11-10

IS retakes half of Syrian border town
Albu Kamal was the last town of note controlled by IS and losing it would cap group's reversion to underground guerrilla organisation with no urban base.
Middle East Online

Albu Kamal lies at the heart of what used to be the sprawling IS "caliphate".

DAMASCUS - Islamic State group fighters conducted a blistering counter-attack on Albu Kamal in eastern Syria Friday in a desperate bid to cling to the last urban bastion of their imploding "caliphate".

The jihadists punched back into the town they had lost a day earlier and swiftly retook several northern neighbourhoods, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said.

"IS started counter-attacking on Thursday night and retook more than 40 percent of the town of Albu Kamal," Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Britain-based Observatory, said.

Syrian regime forces and allied fighters had retaken the town, which lies on the border with Iraq in the eastern Deir Ezzor province, from the jihadists on Thursday.

Albu Kamal was the last significant town to have been under full IS control and lies at the heart of what used to be the sprawling "caliphate" the group declared in 2014 over swathes of Iraq and Syria.

"The jihadists went back in and retook several neighbourhoods in the north, northeast and northwest," Abdel Rahman said. "IS is trying to defend its last bastion."

The jihadist organisation has in the space of a few weeks seen its caliphate shrink to a small rump and lost major cities such as Mosul, Raqa and Deir Ezzor.

According to Syria state TV, regime and auxiliary forces had retaken full control of Albu Kamal by Thursday.

The Observatory said most of the fighting was done by the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah and elite forces from its backer Tehran, as well as militia groups from Iraq.

- US-backed forces advance -

Losing the town, where IS leaders used to meet and were once considered untouchable, would cap a process which has seen the group relinquish any ambition as a land-holding force and return to the desert to fight a clandestine guerrilla war.

Many of the group's top leaders have been killed as Syrian and Iraqi forces with backing from Russia, Iran and a US-led coalition rolled back the territorial losses that saw the jihadists declare a "caliphate" roughly the size of Britain in 2014.

But the whereabouts of the first among them, self-proclaimed "caliph" Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, remains unclear. He has been reported killed or wounded many times but IS has never offered any confirmation.

In Deir Ezzor province, which used to be the heartland of their proto-state, the group's remaining fighters only control about 30 percent of territory, most of it desert.

On the other bank of the Euphrates, coming from the north, the Kurdish-led US-backed forces that retook the IS "capital" of Raqa last month were also advancing on IS positions.

According to the Observatory, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) retook four villages from IS there on Friday.

Kurdish-led fighters and Syrian troops will eventually square off when the last IS holdouts are flushed out, heightening the risk of a clash between the rival forces backed by the US and Russia respectively.

- 'Repugnant' -

Observers have predicted the regime may seek to retake towns and cities wrested from IS by the SDF, such as the northern city of Raqa which the jihadists had used as their main Syrian hub.

The regime, with significant support from Hezbollah, Iran, Russia and various mostly Shiite militia groups from Iraq and even Afghanistan, has notched up victories in recent months.

It has reconquered many key areas that had once fallen to IS or rebel groups and now controls 52 percent of Syrian territory.

Non-IS groups also control much of the northern province of Idlib as well as small pockets elsewhere, including the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus.

The Ghouta area has been besieged for years and the humanitarian situation has deteriorated sharply there recently.

The UN on Friday demanded that the regime allow the urgent evacuation of 430 trapped patients there, nearly 30 of whom need immediate care to survive.

"The obstruction of access to adequate health care for an estimated 350,000 civilians who have been under siege for four years is a clear and repugnant violation of the right to health," it said in a statement.

Fewer countries explicitly demand President Bashar al-Assad step down than at the beginning of the six-year-old Syrian conflict.

More than 330,000 people have been killed in Syria, where the conflict began with anti-government protests in March 2011 and then spiralled into a complex, multi-front war that drew in jihadists and armed forces from around the region and beyond.

 

Trump, Macron call for 'new' nuclear deal with Iran

Saudi Arabia claims killing of Yemen rebel leader

EU to Russia, Iran: Bring Syria to peace talks

Iraq's Shiites split ahead of crucial vote

Iraq’s ex-football stars from sports to politics

Syria's Idlib 'big new challenge' for international community

UNRWA chief says Palestinian aid $200 million short since Trump cuts

Bad memories resurface at Raqa’s mass grave

Turkey newspaper chief slams journalist terror trial

Setback for Yemen rebels after strike takes out leader

Saudi issues Islamic sukuk sale to finance deficit

Yarmuk, an epicentre of Syria's bloody conflict

Egypt’s Eurobond succeeds but risks remain

Egypt former anti-corruption chief gets five years jail

Philippines apologises to Kuwait over 'maid rescues'

Iran urges EU not to pay Trump ‘ransom’ over nuclear deal

UAE to finance project to rebuild Mosul's Grand al-Nuri Mosque

EU, UN begin major conference for Syria aid

New tensions rise between old rivals Turkey and Greece

Rouhani warns Trump against betraying nuclear deal

10 killed in Toronto “deliberate” van attack

Nine people killed in Toronto van attack

Yemen Huthi political leader killed in coalition raid

Syria security chief refuses Lebanon court appearance

Air raid kills dozens at Yemen wedding

Algeria draws Europe’s ire by cutting imports, boosting trade with China

Russia says no decision yet on delivery of S-300 missiles to Syria

French MPs adopt controversial immigration bill

Qatar Airways ‘robust’ despite large losses

IS threatens to attack Iraqi polling station

Jordan sounds the alarm over rising online crimes

Yemen forces clash with jihadists in Taez

Paris attacks suspect gets 20 years over Brussels shootout

Jailed Egyptian photographer wins UN press freedom prize

14 Saddam-era officials still jailed in Iraq

Gaza death toll rises to 40 as Palestinian dies of wounds

HRW says African migrants face rape, torture in Yemen

Four British pilgrims killed in Saudi road crash

HRW warns Egypt fight against IS threatens humanitarian crisis

Iran, Israel trade blame for surge in hostilities over Syria

Iran vows to resume enrichment if US quits nuclear deal

UAE accuses Qatari jets of ‘chasing’ passenger flight

Israel rubbishes claims Mossad behind Malaysia assassination

Syrian refugees are not going home anytime soon

Resumption of direct flights from Moscow brings hope to Egypt’s tourism sector