BEIRUT: Syrian regime forces on Saturday took back control of the militant Islamic State (IS) group’s last holdout in southern Syria after months of fighting, a war monitor said.
In another IS pocket in eastern Syria, meanwhile, air strikes by the US-led coalition killed 43 people, mostly civilians, the monitor said.
Regime forces retook Tulul al-Safa, between the provinces of Damascus and Sweida, “after IS fighters withdrew from it and headed east into the Badia desert”, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Regime forces have been fighting the militants in the area since a deadly July attack on the Druze minority in Sweida province.
In recent weeks, air strikes on the Tulul al-Safa pocket had increased and hundreds of regime fighters were sent as reinforcements, the Syrian Observatory said.
Air strikes by US-led coalition kill over 40 in another IS pocket
The jihadists’ withdrawal was likely “under a deal with the regime forces” after weeks of encirclement and air raids, Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said.
State news agency SANA reported the Syrian forces had made “a great advance in Tulul al-Safa” and said they were combing the area for any remaining militants.
In the July 25 attack, IS killed more than 250 people, most of them civilians, in a wave of suicide bombings, shootings, and stabbings across Sweida province.
The jihadists also kidnapped around 30 people — mostly women and children — during the deadliest assault on Syria’s Druze community in the seven-year civil war.
Twenty-three of the hostages have since returned home, while the remainder appear to have died or been executed by the militants.
Seventeen children were among 36 IS family members killed in the village of Abu Husn in Deir Ezzor province near the Iraqi border, the Observatory said.
Another seven bodies had not yet been identified as either civilians or IS fighters, it said.
The US-led coalition has been backing a Kurdish-Arab alliance called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighting to expel the militants from the pocket around Abu Husn.
“It’s the highest death toll in coalition air strikes since the SDF launched its attack against the IS pocket” in September, the Observatory chief said.
The coalition has repeatedly said it does its utmost to prevent civilian casualties.
“The avoidance of civilian casualties is our highest priority when conducting strikes against legitimate military targets with precision munitions,” spokesman Sean Ryan said this week.
IS overran large swathes of Syria and neighbouring Iraq in 2014, proclaiming a “caliphate” in land it controlled. But the jihadist group has since lost most of it to various offensives in both countries.
In Syria, the group has seen its presence reduced to parts of the vast Badia desert and the pocket in Deir Ezzor.
The SDF in September announced an assault to oust the militants from the eastern pocket, which includes the town of Hajin and the village of Al-Shaafa.
The alliance made slow advances until last month when tough militant resistance pushed the SDF out of the whole of the IS pocket.
Following the setback, hundreds of Kurdish fighters were deployed to the area’s outskirts as reinforcements. But the SDF then put the offensive on hold to protest Turkish shelling of Kurdish militia positions in northern Syria.
Turkey considers the Kurdish militia leading the SDF to be “terrorists”, while its Nato ally the United States has depended on them to fight IS in Syria.
On Sunday, the SDF said it was resuming its offensive against IS after “intensive contacts” with the coalition and “strong diplomatic activity” to defuse the crisis.
Since 2014, the coalition has acknowledged direct responsibility for over 1,100 civilian deaths in Syria and Iraq, but rights groups put the number killed much higher.
Syria’s war has killed more than 360,000 people since it erupted in 2011 with the repression of anti-government protests.
Published in Dawn, November 18th, 2018