Deir Ezzor and the encircled Raqqa are the two remaining Syrian towns under IS control
Syrian government forces are nearing the last major town held by Islamic State (IS) in Homs province, part of their multi-pronged advance towards the group's strongholds in the east of the country, a military source said on Thursday.
The source said combat operations would accelerate towards the town of al-Sukhna, some 50km from the administrative frontier of Deir Ezzor province, where IS has redeployed many fighters after losing ground in Syria and Iraq.
"Capturing al-Sukhna means opening the door and path for forces to move to Deir Ezzor directly," the source told Reuters, adding that the military had captured positions 8km southwest of the town on Wednesday evening.
Islamic State is losing ground fast in Syria to separate campaigns waged by the Russian-backed Assad government on the one hand, and to US-backed Kurdish forces and their allies on the other.
Government forces, backed by the Russian air force and Iran-backed militias, have also been advancing against IS in Hama province and in southern areas of Raqqa province.
US-led operations against IS are currently focused on taking Raqqa city.
The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition of Kurdish and Arab fighters, has surrounded the de-facto IS capital and by Wednesday had captured half of the city with the support of US air strikes.
Squeezed on all sides
IS has also been squeezed in the west of the country where it was reported Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement achieved a victory over former al-Qaeda affiliate Fateh al-Sham on Thursday and pledged a quick victory over remaining IS fighters.
"It won't be a difficult task. Its fighters are only a few hundred and spread out in this vast territory," one commander confidently told AFP Wednesday.
Government forces have been approaching al-Sukhna gradually since recapturing the ancient city of Palmyra, some 50km away, in March.
"It is natural that combat operations escalate in this direction and take on a stronger and faster nature," the source said, adding that Islamic State had concentrated forces in al-Sukhna.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the government forces were being supported in the attack by Russian air strikes and allied militias and had moved to within 5km of al-Sukhna.
Deir Ezzor province, which borders Iraq to the east, is almost entirely under Islamic State control. The Syrian government has held on to a pocket of territory in the provincial capital of Deir Ezzor city, and at a nearby air base.