BEIRUT – Syrian government forces and their allies regained control Saturday of a predominantly Christian central town that sleeper cells of the Islamic State group captured late last month.
The government-run Syrian Central Military Media said “the Syrian army and its allies have restored security and stability to Qaryatayn” after clearing the town of out IS fighters.
The capture of Qaryatayn came after nearly three weeks of fighting that saw IS capture areas it had earlier lost in an offensive by Syrian government forces and Iranian-backed militiamen under the cover of Russian airstrikes.
Earlier this week, IS lost control of the northern city of Raqqa, the de facto capital of its self-declared caliphate, after a four-month offensive by the U.S.-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. Last week, IS lost its stronghold of Mayadeen in eastern Syria.
U.S. President Donald Trump issued a statement Saturday commending the U.S.-led coalition partners on “liberating” Raqqa, adding that they had made “more progress against these evil terrorists in the past several months” than others had done in years. He added that the end of the Islamic State group’s self-styled caliphate “is in sight.”
IS still holds parts of Syria’s eastern Deir el-Zour province and Iraq’s Anbar province, as well as small, scattered pockets elsewhere. The loss of Qaryatayn is another blow for the extremist group.
Earlier this month, the Russian military accused the U.S. of helping IS launch a series of attacks against Syrian troops. Moscow said that IS launched a series of attacks in late September week from the area around Tanf near Syria’s border with Jordan, where U.S. military advisers are based.
The Russians said the IS attacks near Qaryatayn in the Homs province, and a key highway linking Palmyra and Deir el-Zour, wouldn’t have been possible without U.S. intelligence.
The capture of Qaryatayn came as Syria and its strong backer Iran signed a joint memorandum of understanding for developing co-operation and co-ordination between the two countries’ armies.
It said the memo was signed between the two countries’ chiefs of staffs, adding that it provides for exchanging military expertise and intelligence and technology information in a way that can boost the two countries’ capability for fight terrorism, according to state news agency SANA.
Iran has been one of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s strongest supporters since the country’s crisis began in 2011 and has sent thousands of Iranian-backed militiamen to boost his troops against opponents.
The Chief of StaffofIran’s armed forces, Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri, is on an official visit to Syria. He toured the front lines in the northern province of Aleppo and discussed military co-operation with President Bashar Assad.
Israel has been concerned about Iran’s growing role in Syria and has been trying to keep Iran and the fighters it backs away from its border.
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Tuesday that he will not tolerate an Iranian military presence in neighbouring Syria.
Israel fears Iran will plant itself on the country’s doorstep by establishing a Shiite “corridor,” with land links from Iran to Lebanon, allowing the movement of fighters and weapons across the region.
Earlier Saturday, the Syrian army said Israeli forces struck one of its positions near the Golan Heights south of the country.
The army statement said Saturday’s shelling by Israeli troops came after Syrian opposition fighters fired mortar rounds that hit an open area in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, giving the Jewish state a pretext to bomb the army.
The army said the shelling caused material damage without saying if there were casualties.
In one rare incident, Israel this week struck an anti-aircraft battery deep in Syria after it had opened fire on Israeli jets flying over Lebanon.