WASHINGTON - Despite losing ground elsewhere in Syria and Iraq, the so-called Islamic State (IS) group seems to be gaining momentum against forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the eastern city of Deir Ezzor.
After days of fierce clashes across the city in which dozens Syrian soldiers and IS fighters were killed, IS was able to impose a siege on a strategic military airfield Saturday, local news reports said.
The Deir Ezzor military airbase is the last government-held position in the city where several residential areas are still under government control.
Deir Ezzor is the capital of a province that bears the same name. IS has controlled much of the oil-rich province since 2014 and a complete control over the city is a strategic objective for the terror group, analysts said.
“Deir Ezzor is IS’s next capital when Mosul and Raqqa are taken from it,” said Nicholas A. Heras, a Middle East researcher at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based think tank.
“The Assad government's stronghold in Deir Ezzor threatens IS’s ability to operate with complete freedom in eastern Syria,” he told VOA.
Although Russian airstrikes on IS positions in Deir Ezzor have intensified in the past few days, government forces haven’t been able to make any advances in the city.
“The fact that these (Russian) airstrikes are not supplemented with effective ground operations makes it easier for (IS) to continue fighting in Deir Ezzor,” said Sadradeen Kinno, a Syrian reporter who closely follows IS military activities.
He said that in other parts of Syria, government troops have relied on pro-Assad militias to battle rebel forces. But that has not been the case in Deir Ezzor, he told VOA.
“Most of the government soldiers in Deir Ezzor are members of local tribes,” Kinno said. “They only fight IS because they are forced to.”
Recent military successes by IS in Deir Ezzor have largely been achieved thanks to its special forces, known as “Inghemasyoun” or “those who submerge themselves.”
Since its inception in 2014, IS has only used these elite fighters in major battles against opponents in Syria and Iraq. They were of particular benefit to IS in an offensive last December when they recaptured the ancient city of Palmyra from Syrian troops.
“These forces have proven their effectiveness in carrying out precise suicide attacks and surprise raids,” reporter Kinno said. “They have also broken frontlines of anti-IS forces.”
The role of these forces has particularly been evident in the battle for Deir Ezzor, especially with Assad military forces being entrenched in defensible positions, observers said.
And such an important battle is the “job for battle-hardened and well-trained foreign fighters who have been repurposed from the Mosul battle for the task,” analyst Heras said.
“The battle for Deir Ezzor is an existential necessity for (IS) to retain a Caliphate in the Levant,” he added.