Bashar al Assad's forces declare victory in Deir Ezzor, the last major city in the eastern desert held by Daesh, while Iraqi forces wrest control of the nearby Al Qaim border crossing from the militant group.

Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) advance towards the city of Al Qaim in Iraq on November 3, 2017.
Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) advance towards the city of Al Qaim in Iraq on November 3, 2017. (Reuters)

Daesh’s self-proclaimed caliphate was all but reduced on Friday to a pair of border towns at the Iraq-Syria frontier, where thousands of fighters were believed to be holding out after losing nearly all other territories in both countries.

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.

On the Syrian side, regime forces declared victory in Deir Ezzor, the last major city in the country's eastern desert where the militants still had a presence.

On the Iraqi side, pro-government forces said they had captured the last border post with Syria in the Euphrates Valley and entered the nearby town of Al Qaim, the group's last Iraqi bastion.

‘A few thousand Daesh left’

A US-led international coalition which has been bombing Daesh and supporting ground allies on both sides of the frontier said the militant group now has a few thousand fighters left, mainly holed up at the border in Iraq's Al Qaim and its sister town of Abu Kamal on the Syrian side.

"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," spokesman US Colonel Ryan Dillon said.

He estimated there were 1,500 to 2,500 fighters left in Al Qaim and 2,000 to 3,000 in Abu Kamal in Syria’s Deir Ezzor province on the west bank of the Euphrates.

However, the Iraqi military said its forces had wrested control of the Al Qaim border crossing from Daesh. The crossing links the Iraqi city of Husaybah to the town of Abu Kamal.

“Iraqi anti-terrorism forces, backed by tribal volunteer fighters, have successfully liberated the Al Qaim border crossing,” Iraqi Army Colonel Walid al Duleimi said, as soldiers advanced into the militant group's last bastion in Iraq.

 “Our forces managed to retake the crossing after killing several Daesh elements,” Duleimi said, adding that large numbers of militants had fled across the border into neighbouring Syria.

From running cities to guerrilla tactics

Both the Iraqi and Syrian governments and their international backers say they worry that the fighters will still be able to mount guerrilla attacks once they no longer have territory to defend.

"As IS continues to be hunted into these smallest areas ... we see them fleeing into the desert and hiding there in an attempt to devolve back into an insurgent terrorist group," said Dillon. "The idea of IS and the virtual caliphate, that will not be defeated in the near term. There is still going to be an IS threat."

Driven this year from its two de facto capitals – Iraq's Mosul and Syria's Raqqa – Daesh is pressed into an ever-shrinking pocket of desert straddling the frontier.

In Iraq, it faces the army and Shia armed groups, backed both by the US-led international coalition and by Iran. In Syria, the coalition supports an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias in areas north and east of the Euphrates, while Iran and Russia support the regime of Bashar al Assad.

The last stretch?

The Iraqi army had also entered the town of Al Qaim itself, which is located just inside the border on the south side of the Euphrates. The offensive is aimed at capturing Al Qaim and another smaller town further down the Euphrates on the north bank, Rawa.

Iraq has been carrying out its final campaign to crush the Daesh caliphate while also mounting a military offensive in the north against Kurds who held an independence referendum in September.

The Syrian regime victory at Deir Ezzor ends a two-month battle for control over the city, the centre of Syria's oil production. Daesh had for years besieged a government enclave there until an army advance relieved it in early September, starting a battle for militant-held parts of the city.

"The armed forces, in cooperation with allied forces, liberated the city of Deir Ezzor completely from the clutches of the Daesh terrorist organisation," Syrian regime media reported, using an Arabic acronym for Daesh.

Engineering units were searching streets and buildings in Deir Ezzor for mines and booby traps left behind by Daesh fighters, a Syrian military source said.

Government forces are still about 40 km from the border at Abu Kamal, where they are preparing for a final showdown.

The source added that he did not believe the final battle at Abu Kamal would involve "fierce resistance," as many fighters had been surrendering elsewhere.

"Some of them will fight until death, but they will not be able to do anything," he said. "It is besieged from all directions, there are no supplies, a collapse in morale, and therefore all the organisation's elements of strength are finished.

The defeat of Abu Kamal practically means Daesh will be an organisation that will cease to exist as a leadership structure," the military source said. "It will be tantamount to a group of scattered individuals, it will no longer be an organisation with headquarters, with leadership places, with areas it controls."

Source: Reuters