BEIRUT // The Syrian army and its allies on Monday cut off the last major supply route between the northern ISIL-held town of Al Bab and the extremist group’s strongholds to the east.
The militants are now effectively surrounded by Syrian pro-government forces and by Turkish troops and allied rebel groups, as Damascus and Ankara race to capture the largest ISIL stronghold in Aleppo province.
The latest setback for ISIL came as a new UN report said the group had suffered from a sharp drop in revenue and in its ability to attract new recruits.
Syrian troops and fighters from the Lebanese group Hizbollah seized the main road linking Al Bab to ISIL-held territory in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor provinces in an advance backed by Russian artillery, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
“Al Bab is now completely besieged by the regime from the south, and the Turkish forces and rebels from the east, north and west,” said the Britain-based monitoring group, which relies on a network of sources inside Syria.
However, the Syrian army’s advance risks triggering a confrontation with the Turkish military and its allies – rebel groups fighting under the Free Syria Army banner – which have been waging their own campaign to take the town.
The Syrian army has moved to within 5 kilometres of Al Bab in less than three weeks as Damascus seeks to stop Turkey form penetrating deeper into a strategic area of northern Syria. Ankara’s forces have been advancing on Al Bab, about 25km from the Syria-Turkey border since December.
Northern Syria is one of the most complicated battlefields of the multi-sided Syrian war, with ISIL now being fought there by the Syrian army, Turkey and its rebel allies, and an alliance of US-backed Syrian militias.
Turkey launched its campaign in Syria in August to secure its frontier from ISIL and halt the advance of the powerful Kurdish YPG militia. In recent months Turkey has also joined forces with regime ally Russia to try to end to Syria’s six-year conflict.
The two countries carried out their first joint bombing raids around Al Bab in January after brokering a ceasefire agreement between rebels and regime forces. Along with Iran, they organised a summit in Kazakhstan last month in a bid to reinforce that truce ahead of full-fledged peace talks under the United Nations in Geneva.
Experts from Russia, Turkey, Iran and the UN met again in the Kazakh capital on Monday to discuss the ceasefire, with the Kazakh foreign ministry saying representatives from Jordan were also expected to take part.
The ceasefire with rebels has allowed the Syrian regime to target ISIL, with president Bashar Al Assad’s forces engaging the extremists in the central province of Homs at the weekend, the Observatory said.
It said troops had also captured the Hayyan oilfield west of Palmyra, the historical city that ISIL recaptured in December, and fought back against ISIL around Al Seen military airport north-east of Damascus.
ISIL is facing simultaneous offensives against it self-proclaimed Islamic “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq.
A UN report released on Monday said the extremists were “militarily on the defensive in several regions, notably in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and the Syrian Arab Republic”.
ISIL finances are on a decline, according to the report sent to the Security Council last week, forcing the militant group to operate on a “crisis budget”.
Illicit oil sales, mainly from oilfields in Deir Ezzor, dropped from as much as US$500 million (Dh1.8 billion) in 2015 to $260m last year.
The flow of foreign fighters to Iraq and Syria has slowed considerably, because of security measures taken by governments and also the “diminished attractiveness” of the group, the report said.
“The ability of ISIL to attract new recruits has diminished, and fighters are increasingly leaving the battlefield,” the report said.
* Agence France-Presse and Reuters