Syrian army advances against Islamic State southeast of Raqqa city in push to reach Deir e-Zor

AMMAN: Syrian armed forces and their allies battling the Islamic State south of Raqqa city made a “marked advance” in recent days, a regime military source told Syria Direct, reaching positions 12km from the provincial capital on the southern bank of the Euphrates River.

The advances, the Syrian Arab Army source in Raqqa province told Syria Direct, are part of an ongoing regime push to reach government-held districts of Syria's eastern Deir e-Zor city. There, regime forces—alongside tens of thousands of civilians—have been encircled by Islamic State (IS) fighters since 2014.

“We have made a marked advance in recent days,” the SAA source told Syria Direct on Wednesday, asking not to be named. “We are pressing forward along the Euphrates River” towards Deir e-Zor, he added.

Since mid-June, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), tribal forces and pro-regime Palestinian militias—backed by Russian and regime warplanes—have pushed steadily eastwards from southwest Raqqa province, snatching territory from IS fighters in sparsely populated, rural areas.

Approximately 70 kilometers currently separate regime forces in Raqqa province from Deir e-Zor city.

In the process, regime forces have captured dozens of oil fields and by this past Sunday reached the Euphrates River basin, on the southern bank of the river and due east of territory held by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) south of Raqqa city.

The SDF have been battling IS forces for control of the provincial capital in bloody urban fighting since early June. The US-backed forces do not directly work with regime fighters and have clashed with them near Raqqa on multiple occasions.

Mustafa Bali, an SDF media official who is currently in a village west of regime positions southwest of Raqqa city, told Syria Direct on Wednesday that the US-backed forces are “not concerned with anything but our battles with the Islamic State.”

Frontlines between the territory that regime forces captured this week and nearby SDF positions have so far remained calm.

Syrian army Brigadier General Suheil al-Hassan in southern Raqqa province on July 22. Photo courtesy of Syria Victory.    

However, on Tuesday Russian state-owned news agency Sputnik quoted an unnamed SAA field commander as telling the site that it would take just “five hours” for regime forces to capture Raqqa city.

On Monday, British newspaper The Independent reported that the Syrian army, the YPG—the Syrian Kurdish militia that makes up the bulk of the SDF—and Russia had established a coordination center in Raqqa province “to avoid mistakes” due to the close proximity of the forces.

The SAA campaign south of Raqqa city is a counterpart to a simultaneous army offensive moving east from the desert city of Palmyra towards the town of al-Sukhna, in eastern Homs province.

The goal, the SAA source told Syria Direct, is for forces in Homs to capture al-Sukhna and advance toward the Deir e-Zor military airport—roughly 120 km away—while also linking territories with the Raqqa forces and encircling IS to the west in parts of Hama and Homs countryside.  

Waleed Khaled a-Noufal

Waleed a-Noufal was born in Ankhel in northern Daraa province. He attended high school in Ankhel but could not continue his study because of security reasons. Waleed worked as an activist in his local city council and the Umayya Media Center. In 2013, he moved to Jordan and finished his high school degree. Waleed wants to bring about a solution to the current crisis through his reporting.

Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim

Mohammad is from Amouda in Hasakah province. He moved to Jordan in 2004. Mohammad started work with the Syrian Revolution LCC in Amman by doing reporting and coordinating protests. After that he did volunteer work for refugees in Amman.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.