BEIRUT — Syrian government forces and their allies are on the verge of breaking a nearly three-year siege imposed by the Islamic State group on parts of the eastern city of Deir el-Zour, opposition activists and state media said Monday.
Breaking the siege on Deir el-Zour would mark another victory for President Bashar Assad, whose forces have been advancing on several fronts against IS and other insurgent groups over the past year.
Syrian troops and allied militiamen have for months been advancing toward Deir el-Zour, the provincial capital of the oil-rich province of the same name. Government forces are besieged in a handful of neighborhoods as well as a nearby airport.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Monday that the advancing forces are a few hundred meters (yards) from a besieged, government-held air base known as Brigade 137. If they reach the base, they will be able to lift the siege.
State TV reported that government forces are only three kilometers (2 miles) away from breaking the siege. State news agency SANA reported the “collapse” of IS defenses in the area.
“The morale is very high,” Deir el-Zour’s governor Mohammed Ibrahim al-Samra told state TV, speaking from inside the besieged area.
“Assad’s forces are few kilometers (miles) from breaking the siege,” said opposition activist Omar Abu Laila, who currently lives in Europe but is from Deir el-Zour. He is with DeirEzzor 24, an activist group that has reporters throughout the eastern province.
Al-Manar TV, the media arm of Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group, aired footage of people celebrating in the streets of besieged parts of Deir el-Zour. Some 70,000 people live in government-held areas, which have been relying on air drops for food and basic goods.
Hezbollah is fighting alongside Assad’s forces, and Russia is providing crucial air support. The Russian Defense Ministry said its aircraft have carried out 80 airstrikes, destroying two tanks and killing and wounding 70 people in the Deir el-Zour area.
Thousands of people have been fleeing Deir el-Zour province because of the offensive, many of them heading toward the northeastern province of Hassakeh. Last week dozens of people were killed or wounded by mines laid by the militants.
IS has suffered a series of major setbacks in both Syria and Iraq in recent months. The group is now forcibly conscripting all men between the ages of 20 and 30 to replace lost fighters.
Also on Monday, the U.S.-led coalition said allied Syrian fighters have successfully cleared a centuries-old mosque in Raqqa after seizing the Syrian city’s ancient quarters from the Islamic State group.
The coalition says the seizure of the Old City of Raqqa and especially the Great Mosque is a “milestone” in the battle to defeat IS. It said the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, went to great lengths to limit damage to infrastructure, including the ancient mosque.
The Great Mosque is the oldest mosque in the city and has been under IS control since 2014, when the extremist group captured the city. IS later made Raqqa the de facto capital of its self-styled caliphate.
The SDF, aided by the U.S.-led coalition, launched their offensive to capture Raqqa on June 6, and have since taken more than half the city.