The combined forces of Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad have completely wiped out the Islamic State in Syria, the defence ministry has said.
“The mission of defeating the Islamic State bandit groups in Syria has been accomplished,” Lt General Sergei Rudskoi, head of the general staff’s main operations directorate, said as combat maps and footage of Russian planes and Syrian soldiers firing their guns in celebration flashed on the huge screen behind him at a security press briefing.
“Today in the Syrian Arab Republic there is not one population point or region controlled by the Islamic State,” he added. “The territory of Syria has been completely liberated from this terrorist group.”
On Wednesday, Syrian forces supported by Russia air power had swept through the remaining Islamic State territory in the Deir Ezzor region, seizing Abu Kamal and other cities on the west bank of the Euphrates near the Iraq border, Mr Rudskoi said.
More than 550 terrorists, six tanks, 91 pickups with machine guns and 14 “jihad-mobiles,” or suicide vehicles filled with explosives, were destroyed, and Syrian forces were “mopping up” the area, according to the general.
But Ruslan Leviev of the Conflict Intelligence Team, which monitors military operations through open-source information, said as of Wednesday the Islamic State still controlled thousands of square kilometres of desert in the Deir Ezzor, Homs, Idlib and Daraa regions. While the terrorist group has been forced out of Syrian cities, it is able to stage attacks on government and other rebel forces from these desert areas, he said.
“The moment when it can be said ‘Isis is totally destroyed’ in Syria is still far away,” Mr Leviev said.
Mr Rudskoi claimed that Russian forces were already shifting focus to “establishing peaceful life” in Syria, de-mining roads and villages and delivering human aid.
In the final stage of its operation against Isil, Russian aviation had carried out up to 100 sorties and 250 airstrikes a day, an air campaign “unprecedented in its power,” Mr Rudskoi said.
He also admitted that Russian special forces had “played a big role in destroying the Islamic State” by identifying targets on the ground.
For months after it entered the conflict, Moscow insisted that it was only conducting an air campaign and had no ground troops in Syria, despite evidence to the contrary. In September, the defence ministry said Russian special forces were helping to take Deir Ezzor.
During a rare international visit by Bashar al-Assad in Sochi last month, Mr Putin said the Russian operation in the country was “coming to an end”. Al-Assad hugged the Russian leader and thanked him for “saving” Syria.
On Wednesday, the United States and France called on Russia to bring representatives of al-Assad to peace talks in Geneva. Russia, Turkey and Iran have been holding their own parallel talks, often without the participation of anti-Assad rebels.