BEIRUT - Islamic State is fighting hard to reinforce its presence in Syria as it loses ground in Iraq, deploying fighters to seize full control of a government-held city in the east while at the same time battling enemies on three other fronts.
It underlines the residual strength of Islamic State even after its loss of a cluster of cities in Iraq and half of Mosul, and points up the challenges facing US President Donald Trump in the war he has vowed to wage against the group.
The jihadists have opened their most ferocious assault yet to capture the last Syrian government-controlled area in the eastern province of Deir al-Zor, a pocket of Deir al-Zor city that is surrounded by Islamic State territory.
The assault has raised fears for tens of thousands of people living under government authority in the city. Their only supply route has been cut off since Islamic State severed the road to the nearby air base earlier this week.
A military commander in the alliance of forces fighting in support of President Bashar al-Assad said Islamic State was seeking to turn Deir al-Zor city into a base of operations.
"They want to take it by force - and right now," said the commander, a non-Syrian who declined to be identified because he is not an official spokesman for the alliance that includes a range of Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias, Lebanon's Hezbollah, and the Russian air force.
"The situation in Deir al-Zor is very difficult."
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