World / Middle East

Jihadi fighters seek to establish new Islamist state on Syria-Iraq border

By Agence France-Presse in Beirut (China Daily) Updated: 2014-05-23 07:10

Jihadi fighters have launched a fresh bid to take over the Syria-Iraq border area and set up a so-called Islamic state they can control, according to rebels, activists and a monitoring group.

"Their name is the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Their goal is to link together the two areas (in Syria and Iraq) to set up their state and then to continue spreading," said activist and citizen journalist Abdel Salam Hussein.

Speaking from Albu Kamal on the Iraqi border, Hussein said ISIL seeks to crush the Nusra Front, al-Qaida's Syria affiliate, and control the eastern, energy-rich province of Deir Ezzor bordering Iraq.

Battle for Deir Ezzor

"ISIL are trying to end al-Nusra Front's power in the area, and if they do they will take over" the whole province, he said.

ISIL's ambition of creating an area under its control stretching across Syria and Iraq was undermined by a massive January offensive against it by rival Islamist rebels.

The campaign cornered ISIL fighters in Raqa province, its bastion in northern Syria, but the group has since bounced back, deploying around 3,000 fighters to Deir Ezzor, according to rebel spokesman Omar Abu Layla, who opposes both ISIL and the Syrian government.

"ISIL have orders from their leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to focus on Deir Ezzor, to take it over. It's their main gateway to Iraq," said Abu Layla.

Once welcomed into the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, ISIL's plan of domination and its horrific abuses of civilians and rival fighters has sparked the wrath of much of Syria's opposition, including former ally the Nusra Front.

Rooted in al-Qaida in Iraq, ISIL split from the network after overall al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahiri ordered it to stop fighting the Nusra Front.

Activists and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights group said violence is escalating in Deir Ezzor, with daily battles pitting ISIL rebels against Nusra Front fighters, and a spike in car bombings.

One such attack by ISIL on Friday killed 12 people, including three children, the Observatory said.

The watchdog's director, Rami Abdel Rahman, confirmed ISIL was expanding.

'Oil, money, weapons'

Jihadi fighters seek to establish new Islamist state on Syria-Iraq border

"They are pressing their bid by pushing tribes to swear oaths of loyalty to them, and by fighting rival factions in an attempt to ensure they emerge the strongest," he said.

"ISIL have oil, money and weapons," he added.

Over the past year, ISIL fighters have seized regime weapons depots even after they were captured in joint battles with other groups, said Abdel Rahman.

Both the Observatory and activist Hussein say ISIL now holds sway in much of the area east of the Euphrates river in Deir Ezzor province.

Hussein said the tribal nature of the area means the war there is more over oil and loyalty than ideology.

He added that anti-ISIL rebels and jihadis are fighting back, but that they have suffered heavy losses.

"And with all the oil money coming in to Deir Ezzor, ISIL is able to keep its ammunition supplies well-stocked," he added.

The group has distributed food to families in flashpoint areas to try to gain popular support. But rebel spokesman Abu Layla said he believes ISIL has no future in Deir Ezzor.

"They want to use force to set up a brutal, extremist state that has nothing to do with Islam, and people reject that," he said.

"Every day we are fighting ISIL and the regime, without a single bullet or dollar of support from the outside world," Abu Leyla said.

(China Daily 05/23/2014 page11)

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