Syrian government forces are besieging the last ISIS stronghold in the northern province of Aleppo, weeks after launching an offensive to retake the entire province, state media and an opposition monitoring group reported Thursday.
The push on Deir Hafer comes as US aircraft ferried Syrian Kurdish fighters and allies behind ISIS lines to spearhead a major ground assault on the strategic ISIS-held town of Tabqa in Raqqa province, which borders Aleppo.
That airlift marked a deepening US involvement in Syria’s conflict ahead of a looming battle for the extremist group’s de facto capital, the city of Raqqa.
The airlift was part of what Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon described as a large, high-priority offensive to secure the area around Tabqa and the associated Tabqa Dam.
The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces said in a statement Thursday that its fighters, along with military advisers form the US-led coalition, landed Tuesday night in the near Tabqa with their equipment and vehicles, and have already secured a wide area.
“It has become a military base to launch our operations on the west bank of the river until eventually liberating all the countryside of Raqqa,” the statement said.
Tabqa lies 45 kilometers (28 miles) west of Raqqa. ISIS controls the town as well as the Tabqa Dam on the Euphrates River, which supplies electric power to the area and a military airfield nearby.
The SDF statement said the aim of the operation is to capture the town, its dam and the power stations. It called on all civilians to stay away from ISIS positions and young men to join the anti-ISIS force.
The Syrian Central Military Media says Syrian troops launched the Deir Hafer siege late Wednesday after capturing nearby areas.
The opposition’s Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says Syrian troops have now cut the road linking Deir Hafer with Raqqa province.
The Observatory also reported intense clashes in the central province of Hama, where insurgent groups spearheaded by al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria launched a wide offensive capturing dozens of villages and towns over the past two days.
The al-Qaeda-led Levant Liberation Committee said its fighters captured three more villages Thursday morning.
The charity group Save the Children said the Hama fighting has displaced 10,000 people.
The offensive coincides with another in the eastern neighborhoods of the capital, Damascus, which was also led by the Levant Liberation Committee.
Rebels have made marginal progress around an industrial area between the opposition-held Qaboun and Jobar neighborhoods, but have failed to reach the heart of the city. The sounds of artillery fire and airstrikes have boomed across Damascus since Sunday.