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Syrian army advances against Islamic State in Deir Ezzor province

US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces unit also plans assault on Deir Ezzor
Ahmad Abu Khawlah, centre, chief of Deir Ezzor Military Council, group of Arab tribes and fighters allied with US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, speaks to troops (AFP)

Syrian government troops advanced 13km on Sunday into the eastern province of Deir Ezzor as they pressed an offensive against the Islamic State (IS) group, a monitor said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said troops of the Damascus government pushed into the southwest of the oil-rich province from the desert town of Sukhnah.

In June, Syrian troops broke into Deir Ezzor from a border region with Iraq and earlier this month they breached it from the neighbouring province of Raqqa, but moved just 4km in.

Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said Sunday's advance was the first carried out from the Badia desert region.

Since May, Syria's army has been conducting a broad military campaign with Russian support to recapture the Badia region that separates the capital Damascus from Deir Ezzor.

Most of Deir Ezzor has been held by IS since 2014, and militants have also besieged government forces and civilians inside the provincial capital Deir Ezzor city since 2015.

On Thursday, government forces backed by Russian warplanes completely surrounded the militants in a vast central desert region.

Fierce clashes erupted in that area on Sunday, the Observatory said, adding that the region was also blasted by more than 50 air strikes overnight.

US-led coalition unit plans assault

Meanwhile, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) may also begin an assault on Deir Ezzor “within several weeks” in parallel with an ongoing battle for nearby Raqqa city, Ahmed Abu Khawla told Reuters.

“The operation to liberate Deir Ezzor will begin very, very soon,” said Khawla, who heads the Deir Ezzor Military Council that fights under the SDF banner. 

Khawla said late last week that military plans were ready, and that his unit had already “entered Deir Ezzor territory and liberated several towns”.

The military council includes 4,000 fighters, mostly Arabs and mostly from the province, he said. They have taken part in all the SDF offensives and are now fighting in Raqqa. 

Almost 800 fighters from Deir Ezzor’s tribes said they had defected from the Syrian Elite Forces, an Arab group fighting alongside the SDF in Raqqa, to join Khawla’s council. 

The Syrian army is advancing along the south and west bank of the Euphrates towards Deir Ezzor city. The SDF is mostly on the river’s north and east bank, where Raqqa lies. 

That advance has on occasion brought government forces and allies into conflict with the US military and the groups it backs.

Still, the rival campaigns have mostly stayed out of each other’s way, and the US-led coalition has stressed it is not seeking war with Damascus.