BEIRUT - The Islamic State group is “completely besieged” in its last major stronghold in Syria’s Aleppo province, a monitor said Monday, as pro-regime forces piled pressure on the militants on several fronts.

IS fighters were cut off in Al-Bab after forces loyal to the government of President Bashar al-Assad severed a road into the northern town, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.

“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 monitor. It came after “the regime’s forces and allied militia seized the only and last main road used by the militants between Al-Bab and Raqa,” Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP, referring to the militants’ de facto capital in Syria.

Regime forces were backed by fighters from Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah and by Russian artillery, said the Observatory, which relies on a network of sources on the ground for its reports.

The town of Al-Bab, 25 kilometres (15 miles) south of the border with Turkey, is seen as a prize by nearly all sides in the complex war. Since December, Turkey-backed rebel fighters known as the Euphrates Shield alliance have edged towards Al-Bab from the north.

In January, Turkey’s air force began carrying out joint bombing raids around Al-Bab with Assad’s ally Russia. The two parties back opposing sides in the war but have joined forces in recent months to try to bring an end to the conflict.

Assad’s regime has refocused on IS since fully recapturing Aleppo city in December, in the biggest blow to rebel forces fighting to topple his regime for nearly six years.

IS is among several militant movements that have shot to prominence during the conflict, which has left more than 310,000 people dead and has forced millions more from their homes.

Assad’s forces were also locked in fighting with IS in the central province of Homs at the weekend, the Observatory said. It reported that the troops had captured the Hayyan oilfield west of the celebrated desert city of Palmyra. They also fought back against IS around Al-Seen military airport northeast of Damascus, said the monitoring group.

IS is facing simultaneous offensives in Syria and Iraq against its self-proclaimed Islamic “caliphate”.

Meanwhile, experts from Russia, Turkey, Iran and the United Nations held a technical meeting in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana, to discuss in detail the implementation of the Syrian ceasefire agreement, Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry said on Monday. “Representatives of Jordan are expected to take part for the first time,” a ministry spokesman said of the talks.

He said the agenda included reviewing the implementation of the cessation of hostilities, discussing a proposal from the Syrian armed opposition about the ceasefire, and determining options about how to implement it.

 

Fighting and air strikes have plagued the ceasefire agreement between the government and rebel groups since it took effect in late December, with the combatants accusing each other of violations.

“This is about creating a mechanism to control the implementation of the ceasefire,” the ministry spokesman said.

The ministry gave no information about the line-up of the delegations, who were meeting behind closed doors.

After the talks, Russian negotiator, chief command official Stanislav Gadzhimagomedov, said the sides had also discussed preventing provocations and securing humanitarian access.

“The delegations have confirmed their readiness to continue interaction in order to achieve the full implementation of the cessation of hostilities in Syria,” he said.

 

AFP/Reuters