Islamic State fighters are reported to have seized the last border crossing between Syria and Iraq, in the latest advance by the jihadist group against Bashar al-Assad’s struggling military.
Above: an image reportedly from Palmyra following the capture of the city.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported that Syrian soldiers had withdrawn from the al-Tanf border crossing, which is to the south of the recently captured Palmyra.
Iraqi officials confirmed security forces had withdrawn from their side of the crossing, which is on the 450-mile road that connects the Syrian capital Damascus with the Iraqi city of Ramadi, recently captured by the Islamic State group.
An Islamic State fighter told Reuters that the group had taken control of the crossing.
IS now controls all crossings on the Iraq/Syria border – consolidating the group’s self-declared, trans-state caliphate. For its part, the Islamic State group does not recognise the borders established by the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916.
The extremist group already controlled the border crossing at al-Qaim, which provides a route from its stronghold in Raqqah, Syria, down the Euphrates towards Baghdad.
Along with the capture of Palmyra, the Islamic State is now estimated to control half of Syria – though much of this territory is largely unpopulated desert.
Since the summer of 2014 the US has been conducting air strikes to combat the advance of IS. In addition, Iranian-backed militias have engaged Islamic State fighters as they move across Iraq.
Following the fall of Palmyra, President Assad’s military still had two remaining outposts of soldiers in eastern Syria – at al-Shoula near Deir Ezzor, and in the south western Hasakah countryside.
However, SOHR is reporting that IS fighters are now clashing with regime forces in these locations in a bid to remove all trace of the Assad military from the east of the country.
Palmyra was a key strategic victory for the jihadists as the city is a crossroads between many parts of the country, as explained by Channel 4 News Foreign Affairs Correspondent Jonathan Miller below.
IS fighters are reported to have carried out door-to-door searches in Palmyra as it looks for government sympathisers, and 17 people are reported to have been executed since the city’s capture.
Christopher Kozack, Syria analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, wrote on Thursday: “Palmyra represented a key lynchpin in the system of remote outposts garrisoned by the regime throughout the country as a way of maintaining the appearance of a national presence while reinforcing Assad’s own legitimacy as the only viable alternative to a failed, jihadist-dominated Syrian state.
“The loss of Palmyra thus marks a major blow to the campaign designs of the Assad regime and signals that time may be running out for Assad’s plan to garner international support as the only effective anti-Isis actor on the ground.”
The Islamic State group said in Dabiq, its glossy propaganda publication, that the victories show “the crusaders (western coalition) heavily underestimated the firmness and strength of the mujahideeen.”
Elsewhere, the al-Qaeda linked al-Nusrah Front seized a hospital from government forces in Idlib.
Syrian Army solider shad been besieged at the al-Shughour hospital since April.
Syrian state television said the military had managed to “break the siege”, freeing the soldiers. However, al-Nusrah said the soldiers had fled, and amateur video posted online purported to show the same. President Assad’s army has lost large part of the Idlib province, since the fall of Idlib city in march.
Jisr al-Shughour is seen as strategically important because of its proximity to the Mediterranean coastal areas that form the heartland of Assad’s support.