Fighters affiliated with the Islamic State group captured a key town in central Syria Wednesday night after fierce fighting with government troops, a monitor said Thursday. The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that ISIS began attacking the town of Al-Qaryatain in Homs district Wednesday morning, targeting three suicide bombers at pro-regime checkpoints.
"ISIS seized Al-Qaryatain town in the southeastern countryside of Homs after violent clashes with pro-regime forces and loyalist fighters," Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman told Agence France-Presse.
He added that a total of 37 pro-regime fighters were killed in the fighting, which also claimed the lives of 23 ISIS militants.
Abdel Rahman said that the town was strategically important to ISIS because it linked the ancient city of Palmyra, which the extremist group captured in May, with the Qalamun region in the province of Damascus.
"The control of Al-Qaryatain allows ISIS to link the areas under its control in the eastern countryside of Homs with the areas under its control in the eastern countryside of Qalamun, and allows it to transfer fighters and supplies between the two regions," Abdel Rahman reportedly said.
The conflict in Syria, which recently entered its fifth year, has raged on between the embattled government led by President Bashar al-Assad and various rebel groups, including several Islamist groups affiliated with ISIS or al Qaeda. So far, the clashes have resulted in over 210,000 deaths and 3 million refugees -- described as “the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era” by U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres.
The conflict recently took another turn when Turkey began attacking ISIS positions earlier this month, adding to the Islamist group’s list of enemies. The U.S. and Turkey have also discussed creating a buffer zone that would help refugees return home and stem the flood of foreign fighters entering Syria through Turkey.
Analysts have warned of mission creep in Turkish and American operations in the region, arguing that both countries were entering open-ended military campaigns that could keep growing without end.
"This agreement is just one more sign that U.S. leaders have no clear plan for how to tackle ISIS in Syria and little leverage to get its supposed allies to cooperate. Recognizing that sending U.S. troops to Syria would be dangerous and costly, the administration has opted for bombing raids alone," Emma Ashford, a visiting fellow at the Cato Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C., wrote in an article last week.