ISTANBUL -- Syrian government troops failed on two fronts Monday to reverse gains by fighters loyal to the Islamic State, a sign that the insurgents who’ve captured half of Iraq are capable of battling Syria’s government as well.
Anti-government activists said 14 government troops were killed in battles for two villages outside the east Syrian city of Deir el Zour. The Syrian army fared no better in an attempt to recapture the Shaer gas field near in the ancient city of Palmyra, losing six soldiers and failing to dislodge the Islamic State fighters.
The clash in Deir el Zour was the latest sign that the Islamic State, which had frontally attacked the regime only once before _ in the desert near Homs _ is prepared to fight it as the opportunity arises. A member of the Islamist movement told McClatchy that it intends to remove the regime of President Bashar Assad from Deir el Zour province altogether.
The latest confrontation began Friday when the Islamic State, which now controls more than 35 percent of Syria, ordered the last remnant of U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army troops in the province to leave the towns of Ayyash and Ien Al Bujuma’a. This created a temporary power vacuum that government forces attempted to fill by setting up checkpoints around the towns.
The Islamic State launched an attack Saturday that ended with it seizing the two towns and killing 14 government soldiers and three officers.
Activists said regime troops apparently were trying to advance toward Ayyash in a bid to protect military depots in a neighboring area of Badyat Ayyash, said to contain the third biggest depots for weapons and ammunition in Syria.
Masar Press, an opposition news agency, said the Islamic State continued its assault Monday when it stormed Al Masrab, a third village controlled by the regime in the western countryside. There, the Islamists arrested members of the National Defense Force, a pro-government militia, and blew up their houses. According to unconfirmed reports, the Islamic State also captured a fourth town, Al Kharita.
Clashes between the Islamic State and the regime were also reported inside the city of Deir el Zour, in the Al Hawika and Al Jubaila districts, as well as around the military airport, the last major strongholds of the regime in the province.
Anti-regime local coordinating committees reported that the Syrian army responded to its losses with heavy shelling of districts controlled by the Islamic State, another indication that the era of tacit cooperation between the army and the Islamists was over, at least in eastern Syria.
A member of the Islamic State forces told McClatchy that Emir Abu Omar Al Shishani, the top officer in the area, told them that the Islamic State will remove the regime from the entire province of Deir el Zour. The Islamic State member, who insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters, added that the military situation in the area is fully under the control of the group, in particular Deir el Zour’s western countryside.
Meanwhile, in the Homs Desert, six regime soldiers were killed Monday morning when the Syrian army made its third unsuccessful attempt to take back the Shaer gas field, which the Islamic State seized last week, killing more than 200 soldiers.
Observers near the scene reported Sunday that at least 60 government troops died in ambiguous circumstances during a government air assault to regain the field. Activists close to the Islamic State said that these soldiers were special forces and that the regime air force bombed them, mistaking them to be fighters of the Islamic State.
The Syrian government, which has come under growing criticism from soldiers’ families for suppressing the news, has not confirmed the losses, nor that a large number were killed by friendly fire. The official news agency SANA reported that many “terrorists were killed in the Palmyra countryside.”
The capture of nearly all Syria’s oil and gas has proved a financial bonanza for the Islamic State, which appears to be trying to win the hearts and minds of Iraqis and Syrians by guaranteeing low oil prices.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based anti-government group, said fuel tankers with Iraqi license plates and driven by Iraqi nationals have entered Syria and reached Al Omar oilfield near Deir el Zour in the last few days, waiting to be filled with oil before they return to Iraq through the territory controlled by the Islamic State.
The observatory said the group is selling oil to Syrian dealers for $12 a barrel, on the condition that those dealers sell them for no more than $18 a barrel to civilians, in an attempt to win support from people living in territories under its control.
Alhamadee is a McClatchy special correspondent. Roy Gutman in Baghdad contributed.