Syria’s army on Tuesday broke a years-long Islamic State group siege on the government enclave of Deir Ezzor city as it battles to expel the jihadists from a key stronghold.
The jihadist group has already lost more than half of its nearby bastion of Raqa to US-backed forces, and the loss of Deir Ezzor city and the surrounding oil-rich province would leave it with only a handful of isolated outposts.
Syria’s army and allied fighters, backed by Russian air support, have been advancing towards Deir Ezzor on several fronts in recent weeks, and today arrived inside the Brigade 137 base on its western edge.
“The Syrian Arab Army this afternoon broke the siege on Deir Ezzor city after its advancing forces arrived from the western province to Brigade 137,” state news agency SANA said.
State media reported celebrations inside the government-held parts of the city as the troops arrived.
Government forces and tens of thousands of civilians in the city have been trapped under IS siege for over two years, facing food and medical shortages.
Early this year, the government-held parts of the city were cut in two by an IS offensive.
The army’s advance to the Brigade 137 base today breaks the siege on the northern part of the city, to which it is connected by a road.
But a southern government-held section, including the key military airport, remains surrounded.
Government forces are heading towards the southern sector, however, and are currently around 15 kilometres away, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor.
Around 100,000 people are believed to be inside government-held areas of Deir Ezzor, with perhaps 10,000 more in parts of the city held by IS.
Earlier today, a local journalist contributing to AFP inside the government-held northern part of Deir Ezzor reported the sound of fierce clashes and heavy artillery as the army approached.
He said the national flag had been raised throughout the area in anticipation of celebrations upon the arrival of government soldiers.
Some residents, who have faced shortages of food and medicine throughout the siege, had begun greeting each other with “Good morning of victory,” he added.
The army still faces a potentially difficult battle to break the siege on the south of the city and free its remaining neighbourhoods, and the surrounding province, from IS.
But for the government, its success would be “one of the most symbolic victories in its six-year war,” wrote Syria analyst Aron Lund in an analysis recently.
“The reopening of the Deir Ezzor road is a strategic disaster for IS, which is now at its weakest since 2014 and seems unable to break out of an accelerating spiral of defeats,” he added.
IS has lost over half its other Syrian stronghold, the city of Raqa, to an offensive by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters.
And in neighbouring Iraq, it has lost 90 percent of the territory it once held, including the city of Mosul.
Inside Deir Ezzor, residents have faced years of privation, with food becoming scare or unaffordable, and medicine and healthcare unavailable.
The government has continued to fly in limited supplies by helicopter, and the UN last year began airdropping humanitarian aid to the city.
Syria’s army began its offensive to reach the city in earnest last month, and has advanced on multiple fronts, including from the neighbouring Raqa province to the west and central Homs province to the south.
It has been supported by Russia’s military, which began an intervention in support of the government in 2015.
Today, Moscow said a Russian warship fired cruise missiles from the Mediterranean in support of the government’s Deir Ezzor offensive.
More than 330,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began in March 2011 with anti-government protests before spiralling into a vicious and complex civil war.