After weeks of fighting, the Syrian government announced Friday that its forces have recaptured the eastern city of Dair Alzour, Islamic State’s last urban stronghold in the country and the capital of an oil-rich province by the same name.
Government troops, backed by Russian warplanes and Iranian-supported militias, drove the militants from their remaining footholds in the city and were “sweeping” streets, squares and buildings to remove any unexploded ordnance and booby-traps left behind, the official Syrian Arab News Agency said.
It was the latest in a string of military defeats for the extremist group, which has seen its self-declared caliphate crumble in the face of multiple assaults in Syria and neighboring Iraq in recent months.
A U.S.-backed alliance of Syrian militias wrested control of Islamic State’s de facto capital, Raqqa, last month, and Iraqi forces recaptured Mosul, the largest city held by the militants, in July.
As troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad took back Dair Alzour on Friday, Iraqi government forces and allied Shiite Muslim militias were battling Islamic State fighters in the far west of their country, pushing into the town of Qaim and seizing a key border crossing under the control of the militants.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi congratulated the “heroic forces” on their progress in the operation, which began just over a week ago, according to a statement issued by the country’s Joint Operations Command.
Dair Alzour, which sits on the west bank of the Euphrates River, was considered a key asset of Islamic State because of its proximity to the Iraqi border and to oil and gas fields that were an important source of revenue for the militants.
Assad’s forces and their allies punched their way into the city in September, breaking a nearly three-year siege on the handful of neighborhoods that had remained under government control since the militants swept across large parts of Syria and Iraq in 2014.
The troops are now in a race against the U.S.-backed fighters known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militia, for control of the remaining areas in the hands of Islamic State. The militants still hold about a third of the province, including the border town of Bukamal.
The fighting has displaced tens of thousands of civilians, who have poured into overcrowded camps where food and medicine are in short supply and there aren’t enough tents to go around.
Many will be eager to return to the city and surrounding villages, although it is not clear how many have a home still standing.
The area has been pounded with artillery and air strikes for months. Video posted on SANA’s website Thursday showed tanks rolling through a devastated cityscape, past collapsed buildings and ones with their facades blown off. Clouds of dark smoke rose from the skyline.
(Resol is a Los Angeles Times special correspondent.)
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