DEIR EZZOR: Syrian and allied forces converged on Saturday on holdout fighters of the militant Islamic State (IS) group in the Syrian border town of Albu Kamal, the militants’ very last urban bastion following a string of losses.

On Friday, Russian-backed Syrian regime forces took full control of Deir Ezzor, which was the last city where IS still had a presence after being expelled from Hawija and Raqa last month.

The borders of a “caliphate” that three years ago spanned territory in Iraq and Syria roughly the size of Britain further shrank on the group’s surviving fighters when Iraqi forces retook Al-Qaim, also on Friday.

The town lies along the Euphrates River in western Iraq and faces Albu Kamal, which is where many of IS’s remaining fighters are thought to have regrouped.

The Syrian army and allied militia groups were still some 30 kilometres from Albu Kamal, but Iraqi paramilitaries crossed the border to take on IS, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

“Fighting pitted Hashed al-Shaabi units against the [IS] in the Hiri area,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, who heads the Britain-based monitor.

Hiri, just across the border from Al-Qaim, on the outskirts of Albu Kamal, is now the last town of note still fully controlled by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s group.

Abdel Rahman said IS was able to pin back the Iraqi forces.

The Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation) is a paramilitary umbrella dominated by Shia militia outfits loyal to Tehran.

The Syrian regime forces, backed by intensive Russian air strikes, are advancing on Albu Kamal from an oil pumping station in the desert west of the town.

Kurdish-led US-backed fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces were making fresh gains further north in Syria’s eastern province of Deir Ezzor, the Observatory said.

The offensives were more simultaneous than coordinated in the border area, where the myriad armed forces involved in the anti-IS fight support conflicting agendas.

The Euphrates Valley border area was the heart of the “caliphate” IS proclaimed in 2014 and is now its last redoubt, where a US-led coalition supporting the military effort said around 1,500 fighters remained.

The parallel offensives have sent thousands of civilians running for their lives, some of them straight into the desert.

Sonia Khush, Syria director at the Save the Children charity, said an estimated 350,000 people have fled the recent fighting in Deir Ezzor province, half of them children.

The US-led coalition said anti-IS forces would hunt down militants to the last one.

“The coalition must and will deny IS safe haven in Iraq and Syria,” spokesman Ryan Dillon said.

Published in Dawn, November 5th, 2017

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