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IS 'besieged' in last bastion in Syria's Aleppo

Pro-Assad forces and allied militias captured the last route between Al-Bab and Raqqa, IS's de facto capital
A fighter from the Free Syrian Army plays with a dog at a captured IS checkpoint located northeast of the city of Al-Bab, some 30 kilometres from Aleppo, on 8 January, 2017 (AFP)

The Islamic State group is "completely besieged" in its last major stronghold in Syria's Aleppo province, a monitor said Monday, as pro-government forces pressure the militants on several fronts.

IS fighters were cut off in Al-Bab after forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad severed a road into the northern town, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.

"Al-Bab is now completely besieged by the regime from the south, and the Turkish forces and rebels from the east, north and west," the monitor said.

The reported siege came as US President Donald Trump Monday pledged that America and its allies would defeat the "forces of death" and keep militants from gaining a foothold on US soil.

"Today we deliver a message in one very unified voice to these forces of death and destruction - America and its allies will defeat you," Trump said as he visited US Central Command, which plays a key role in the US-led mission to fight IS in Iraq and Syria.

"We will defeat radical Islamic terrorism. And we will not allow to it take root in our country," he said.

Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said Syrian regime forces and allied militias captured the last route between Al-Bab and Raqqa, the militants’ de facto capital in the country.

Battle for Al-Bab

At least 11 pro-government fighters were killed on Monday in ongoing clashes around Al-Bab, he added.

Just 25 kilometres south of the Turkish border, the town is seen as a prize by nearly all sides in the complex war.

Since December, Turkey-backed rebels known as the Euphrates Shield alliance have edged towards Al-Bab from the north.

"Al-Bab is more important for the Turks, who defined the town as a priority for their Euphrates Shield alliance," said Syria expert Thomas Pierret.

But the government was eyeing territory around Al-Bab "to protect the eastern flank of Aleppo city" it recaptured in December, he said.

It also sought to use the town as a buffer, "preventing the Euphrates Shield from advancing south" deeper into Syria.

On Monday, Assad told visiting Belgian lawmakers that Western policies towards the Syria conflict had hurt Europeans.

"Most European countries adopted an unrealistic policy since the beginning of the war in Syria... damaging the interests of their own people by supporting terrorist groups," he said.

Assad's government has refocused on IS since fully recapturing Aleppo city, in the biggest blow to the rebels.

IS is among several militant movements that have emerged during the conflict, which has left more than 310,000 people dead and displaced millions.

Homs clashes

At least 14 government fighters were killed in clashes with IS in the central province of Homs on Monday, the Observatory said, as Assad's forces sought to advance backed by heavy artillery and air strikes.

The UN said on Monday IS was "militarily on the defensive" across the region, struggling to attract recruits and facing falling revenues from oil and extortion.

But the UN report urged governments to be vigilant of IS efforts to find new revenue streams, citing concerns that journalists and aid workers travelling to areas recaptured from the militants could be targets for kidnapping.

On Saturday, US-backed Kurdish and Arab fighters announced a new phase in their campaign to capture Raqqa, but said they needed more weapons to win.

The Syrian Democratic Forces began their offensive for the militant stronghold in November but are still some distance away.

SDF fighters have received training and air support from the US-led coalition. Last week Washington said it had supplied them with armoured sports utility vehicles for the first time.

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