At least 20 Syrian soldiers were killed and several others wounded in a deadly ambush by ISIL fighters on a bus in the country’s east, according to opposition activists. The attack, which took place on Thursday night, was the latest in a series of assaults by the extremist group, which lost its last stronghold in Syria in 2019 but still maintains sleeper cells in some areas.

The bus was carrying Syrian troops from the eastern town of Mayadeen to the city of Deir Ezzor, where they were supposed to join a military operation against ISIL remnants, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. As the bus approached a desert road near the village of Shula, it was surrounded by gunmen who opened fire with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, killing at least 20 soldiers and injuring others. Some of the soldiers managed to escape and call for reinforcements, while others were captured by the attackers.

The ambush was claimed by ISIL in a statement posted on its Telegram channel, which said that its fighters had killed or wounded more than 40 soldiers and seized weapons and ammunition. The statement also said that the attack was part of a “revenge campaign” for the killing of its leader Abu Hussein al-Husseini al-Qurashi, who was reportedly killed by Turkish forces in April. ISIL named Abu Hafs al-Hashimi al-Qurashi as its new leader earlier this month.

The attack was one of the deadliest carried out by ISIL in Syria this year, and showed that the group still poses a threat despite its territorial defeat. In February, ISIL killed at least 53 people, mostly civilians, in an attack on workers collecting truffles near the central town of Sukhna. In June, ISIL killed at least 22 pro-government fighters in an ambush near Palmyra. In July, ISIL killed at least 13 people, including two children, in a car bomb attack on a checkpoint near Deir Ezzor.

ISIL once controlled large parts of Syria and Iraq, where it declared a caliphate in 2014 and imposed its brutal rule on millions of people. The group was gradually pushed back by a US-led coalition and local forces, and lost its last bastion of Baghouz in eastern Syria in March 2019. However, the group has continued to launch sporadic attacks in both countries, exploiting the security vacuum and the political instability.

The Syrian government, backed by Russia and Iran, has vowed to eliminate the remaining pockets of ISIL resistance in the country, but has faced challenges from other armed groups and foreign powers. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), backed by the US, have also been fighting against ISIL in northeastern Syria, but have clashed with Turkey and its allies over their control of the border region. Meanwhile, Israel has carried out frequent airstrikes against Iranian-backed militias and Hezbollah fighters in Syria, claiming to prevent their entrenchment and weapons transfers.

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