AMMAN: Syrian Arab Army (SAA) forces and their allies continued a successful sweep through Islamic State territory in the east Aleppo countryside on Wednesday, one day after reaching the banks of the Euphrates River and capturing the main water-pumping station supplying regime-held Aleppo city.
On Wednesday, loyalist forces snatched a handful of villages from the Islamic State in an area roughly 70km east of Aleppo city, along the west bank of the Euphrates River.
The night before, Syrian regime soldiers and their allied militias captured the Khafsah water station adjacent to the Euphrates, thereby securing control of the main water source for Aleppo city.
Aleppo city has been without water for more than two months, with residents relying on water trucks and wells after Islamic State forces allegedly cut off the supply.
Syrian state media agency SANA reported on Tuesday that “safety and stability” had been returned to Khafsah and the surrounding area. SAA units “eliminated dozens of terrorists,” disarmed and destroyed matériel and “downed three bomb-carrying drones,” the agency claimed, citing an unnamed military source.
Murad al-Assad, a resident of the town of Khafsah, adjacent to the pumping station, told Syria Direct on Wednesday that the Islamic State “dismantled and removed some equipment and parts” from the station before withdrawing on Tuesday.
In the final days before losing control of Khafsah, IS fighters became increasingly violent towards residents of the town, claimed al-Assad. “The number of arrests and executions increased,” he said. “They forced some young men to join their ranks and fight.”
When residents tried to flee the town—as some 7,000 reportedly did—“IS tried to stop them from leaving, and shot at them while they were running away,” said al-Assad. Those able to leave reportedly travelled north to territories controlled by the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
After capturing Khafsah and the neighboring water station, the next target for the regime in east Aleppo is the Jirah Air Base, just south of current government-held positions. Syrian rebels captured the air base in 2012, and the Islamic State seized it from them in 2014.
Syrian regime forces and their allies began an offensive against the Islamic State east of Aleppo city in mid-January 2017.
SAA forces in the east Aleppo countryside on Sunday. Photo courtesy of Central War Media.
Initially, loyalist forces pushed northeast from Aleppo city towards the stronghold of al-Bab. However, after Turkish-backed Syrian rebels captured the city in late February, loyalist fighters advanced east, towards the Euphrates River.
As they moved east, regime forces captured dozens of villages, towns and strategic positions from the Islamic State in the east Aleppo countryside. By capturing territory south of areas held by Turkish-backed rebels, the regime is effectively preventing them from making their own push southward and securing territory deeper inside Syria.
The success and speed of the Syrian army offensive may be due to the fact that, after capturing Aleppo city from rebel forces in December 2016, the Syrian regime was able to commit more manpower to campaigns elsewhere in the country.
In addition to SAA forces, however, at least one Iraqi militia, Harakat al-Nujaba, has confirmed that it is participating alongside the Syrian Arab Army in the latest battles in eastern Aleppo countryside.