Russia and Syria Target ISIS Territory As Big As Two U.S. States

The Syrian military and its allies, including Russia, are approaching the final steps toward completely surrounding the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) in a massive pocket of Syrian territory spanning the size of nearly two entire U.S. states.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a U.K.-based monitoring group with ties to the exiled opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, released a report Monday detailing recent pro-government gains on two fronts that, if met, would seal off over 3,000 square miles of ISIS-held land in the Syrian desert, an area roughly equivalent to the states of Delaware and Rhode Island combined.

Russia has played a major role in backing the Syrian military and allied factions, which the SOHR said included fighters of Afghan, Lebanese, Iraqi and Palestinian origins. After the most recent advances, including a Syrian paratrooper attack on ISIS that Russia called "unprecedented," the SOHR said the Syrian military was less than 15 and a half miles away from laying siege to ISIS.

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"Violent clashes due to the regime and Russian aircraft's intensive strikes on the battlefield, in addition to heavy missile bombardment, enabled regime forces to achieve new progress, as they imposed control by air and missile cover over three new areas located near Wahat al-Koum," SOHR wrote.

"The clashes and shelling left dead and wounded on both sides of the fighting," the group added.

GettyImages-831061356 An Islamic State militant group (ISIS) poster in the central Syrian town of Sukhnah is adorned with the flags of pro-government fighters after the Syrian government and its allies, including Russia, took control of the area, August 13. Russia said the Syrian government has recently doubled its area of control after losing large parts of the country to rebels and jihadists in the wake of a 2011 uprising. Stringer/AFP/Reuters

The report also referenced a successful Syrian airborne landing Saturday in the village of Qadir, located miles behind ISIS lines near the border of Homs and Raqqa governorates. Prior to the operation, Russian Ka-52 Alligator attack helicopters and the Syrian military reportedly conducted a nighttime assault on ISIS positions in Qadir, which lies some 75 miles west of ISIS-held Deir ez-Zor, the retaking of which is among the ultimate goals of the Syrian campaign against the jihadists. Paratroopers of the Syrian army then managed to land over a dozen miles from the front lines near the villages of Qadir and Khirbet Mikman, ultimately dislodging ISIS from the area, Russian state media reported.

"For the first time since the beginning of combat operations against the terrorist group Islamic State in Syria, Syrian government forces organized and conducted a virtuosic tactical landing operation behind militants’ lines with their subsequent defeat and liberation of the settlement of Qadir," Russia's defense ministry said in a statement, according to Tass Russian News Agency.

"Russian military advisers took direct part in the preparation of the operation and control over it," it added.

Saturday's southbound advances into Homs paralleled another strategic victory over the formerly ISIS-controlled village of Sukhnah, where a separate Syrian military formation is progressing to the north. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told state media Sunday that recent Syrian military accomplishments have allowed the Syrian government to more than double its territory in the past two months, and that the anticipated recapture of Deir ez-Zor, which has been under ISIS siege since 2014, would "say a lot, if not everything, about the end of the battle with [ISIS]."

RTS1ATHM A map shows the change in areas of control in Syria between April 3 and July 6. Both the Syrian military, backed by Russia and Iran, and the mostly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, backed by the U.S., have since made further progress against the Islamic State militant group (ISIS). Institute for the Study of War/Reuters

As the Russia-backed Syrian military advances against ISIS in Homs and in the outskirts of Raqqa, the U.S. has also made recent gains against ISIS elsewhere through Washington's own local allies. The Syrian Democratic Forces, a mostly Kurdish alliance of Arabs and ethnic minorities, has continued to make slow yet steady progress against the thousands of jihadists entrenched in the remaining half of their de facto capital of Raqqa. The western and eastern flanks of the majority-Kurd fighters storming the city met Saturday for the first time, signaling another huge blow to ISIS's final defenses in Syria, the Associated Press reported.

SOHR and a number of other human rights groups have accused both international-led campaigns against ISIS of amassing substantial civilian casualties and of using weapons that violate international treaties on warfare, infractions that could potentially amount to war crimes. ISIS has closely documented and proliferated its own atrocities via social media since taking nearly half of Iraq and Syria in 2014. A U.N. war crimes chief resigned last week over what she said was the international community's failure to take action against human rights abuses in more than six years of war in Syria, where she said "everyone is bad now," according to The Telegraph.