Assad forces, backed by Russian strikes, take over al-Qaryatain after besieging it for days, state media reports.
Syrian rebels seized a strategic town from ISIL near the Turkish border north of Aleppo in another important step on the march towards the armed group’s de facto capital, Raqqa.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor confirmed that groups fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) captured the town of al-Rai on Thursday after fierce battles with Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS).
“This is the beginning of the end of Daesh [ISIL]. Those who have bet the FSA had been decimated are now proven wrong. It’s a victory for the Free Syrian Army,” said Abu Abdullah from the Nour al-Din al-Zinki Brigades, which participated in the assault on the heavily defended border town.
“We will continue our path to Raqqa and all the towns occupied by Daesh,” he said, using ISIL’s acronym in Arabic.
After taking over al-Rai, fighters said they dismantled landmines surrounding civilian houses and farm lands.
The rebels said their next move would be an advance on the ISIL-held city of al-Bab – south of al-Rai and northeast of Aleppo, Syria’s second-largest city.
“Al-Rai is a strategic region and it’s a gateway to proceed towards the regions of Jarabulus and al-Bab,” a fighter from the Faylaq al-Sham group told Al Jazeera.
The recent gains by the rebels is a boost to Turkey, which has sought to prevent Syrian Kurdish-led forces from expanding their stretch of territory along the border.
It was the first retreat by ISIL fighters since opposition forces made major advances in the area last May and captured areas close to the Azaz border crossing with Turkey.
The Amaq website, which is linked to ISIL, conceded that forces it described as “US and Turkish-backed opposition brigades” had taken al-Rai town after days of intense artillery fire.
It said al-Rai fell after heavy clashes and two ISIL suicide bombings that led to many casualties among opposition forces.
ISIL has employed suicide attacks to hold back offensives by the Syrian army and their allies, and by deploying small groups of fighters to disrupt supply lines.
That is a change of tactics from ambushes and lightning-fast strikes after the loss of significant territory, defence analysts say.
A sustained rebel advance near the Turkish border this week allowed moderate forces to capture a string of villages and eroded ISIL’s footholds in an area identified as a priority in the fight against the group.
Rebels who previously struggled to make gains against ISIL in the area and had been fending off advances by Kurdish-led fighters mobilised several thousand fighters for the al-Rai attack, opposition sources said.
An alliance of FSA groups formed for the offensive includes the Turkish-backed Sultan Murad and Failaq al-Sham groups.
ISIL’s foothold along the Turkish border was also significantly loosened last year by US-allied Kurdish fighters of the YPG, which gained territory from the group farther east.