By Noam Raydan and Nour Alakraa
Islamic State forces cut in half the last Syrian government enclave in an oil-rich eastern province, pro-government media and opposition activists said Tuesday, putting new pressure on the regime after the terror group suffered setbacks elsewhere.
The group’s advances in Deir Ezzour—the capital of a province of the same name—came during a fierce Islamic State offensive. By Tuesday morning, the extremists had cut off a supply route to a Syrian military air base.
Islamic State has laid complete siege to the government-held part of the city for about two years. With the fresh advances, the group cut off an area where tens of thousands of civilians live from a Syrian air base that has been used to bring supplies and aid to the enclave. The extremists advanced despite heavy airstrikes by Syrian regime and allied Russian warplanes.
Deir Ezzour province and neighboring Raqqa province form Islamic State’s most significant territorial foothold in Syria today. In Iraq, the group is being slowly squeezed out of its last major stronghold there, the city of Mosul.
Deir Ezzour province, which is on the border with Iraq, has economic and strategic importance as a hub of oil and agriculture. Islamic State has braced to make a last stand there as it comes under pressure from U.S.-backed forces elsewhere in Syria and Iraq.
The division of the government-held enclave in Deir Ezzour threatens to worsen the humanitarian situation of some 200,000 civilians trapped in the areas that have been separated from the air base, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition monitoring group. The base is vital for supplying the Syrian military there and for aid to residents of the area.
“People in the besieged part of Deir Ezzour are living under terrible conditions. They are spending most of their time in basements to avoid the mortar shells which Islamic State is raining down on the city,” said a Turkey-based antigovernment activist who said he was in contact with relatives trapped in the city.
The fighting in Deir Ezzour has killed at least 122 civilians in both government and Islamic State areas in the past three days, according to the Observatory.
On Tuesday, the Syrian troops received military reinforcements, according to Rami Abdelrahman, head of the Observatory.
“Islamic State needs to secure the belt around the city to fully control it,” said Omar Abu Layla, head of the antigovernment activist network Deir Ezzor24.
Syrian warplanes continued to pummel Islamic State positions in the city on Tuesday, according to SANA, Syria’s state-controlled news agency, killing and wounding a number of fighters and destroying their vehicles in the area.
In September, the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State said it mistakenly struck Syrian army positions in the same area where government forces are currently battling Islamic State. Dozens of Syrian soldiers were killed and the strike contributed to the collapse of an already shaky cease-fire at the time.