BEIRUT (Reuters) - The Syrian army aims to target Islamic State in Raqqa province, a pro-Damascus newspaper reported on Friday, in a new offensive focusing on areas that a U.S.-backed alliance is also aiming to capture from the jihadists.
The initial target is the town of Tabqa, the location of an Islamic State arsenal, the Lebanese newspaper al-Akhbar reported, adding that the army would was putting "a foot in the area without leaving it completely to the Americans' allies".
Tabqa is also a target of the U.S.-backed Syria Democratic Forces alliance (SDF) which has launched a multi-pronged attack against IS in the provinces of Raqqa and neighboring Aleppo, aiming to deny it access to the Turkish frontier.
The Syrian army announced on Thursday a new operation backed by Russian air strikes in the Athriya area of eastern Hama province, some 100 km (60 miles) southwest of Tabqa and some 50 km (30 miles) from the provincial frontier with Raqqa.
Asked about the al-Akhbar report, a Syrian military source told Reuters the army was focused on eastern and northern areas of both Homs and Hama provinces "in the direction of Daesh (IS) gatherings".
Homs province borders the Islamic State-dominated province of Deir al-Zor in eastern Syria.
"The field leadership does not give information about the main direction or the secondary direction, but the direction is open to the two possibilities - Deir al-Zor and Raqqa", the source said.
Al-Akhbar said the new Syrian army operation did not aim to reach Raqqa city "in the coming weeks", but the aim was at least to reach Tabqa city and Lake Assad, which it overlooks.
Tabqa, the location of an air base, is some 50 km (30 miles) west of Raqqa city, Islamic State's de facto capital. Islamic State captured Tabqa in 2014 at the height of its rapid expansion in Syria and Iraq.
The Syrian army advanced to the border between Raqqa and Hama provinces in February. A military source said at the time Tabqa would be the first target of a Syrian government attack in Raqqa province.
(Reporting by Tom Perry; Editing by Gareth Jones)