BEIRUT: The Al-Qaeda splinter group ISIS has wrested control of key parts of the eastern Syrian province of Deir al-Zor from other rebel groups, activists said Sunday, worsening infighting that has handicapped the insurgency against President Bashar Assad.
More than 100,000 civilians have fled the fighting following weeks of intense clashes between Islamist insurgents, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-regime group.
Civilians in Deir al-Zor lived through more than two years of fighting between opposition fighters and the government. Now they are dealing with a second wave of internecine war that has devastated parts of the country that the opposition considers “liberated” from Assad’s forces.
Pro-opposition activists from the city said people were fanning out in different directions to escape the clashes, while much of Deir al-Zor city suffers from a lack of electricity and clean water. They posted photos purporting to show civilians boarding small boats on the Euphrates River to escape.The Observatory said that fighting was raging in several villages in Deir al-Zor province and that the clashes have killed some 230 militants have been killed over the past 10 days. Although the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) made headway in the fight for Deir al-Zor, rebel militias rarely hold territory for long before clashes resume.
On Saturday, ISIS militants seized the Conico natural gas field, after its rivals in the Nusra Front withdrew from the facility.
ISIS also seized control of neighborhoods of Deir al-Zor city from the Nusra Front, Syria’s official Al-Qaeda affiliate, this weekend, according to the Observatory.
In Syria’s conflict, clashes tend to be highly localized and, when it suits their aims, the Nusra Front and ISIS have fought side by side in some areas.
ISIS is a rebranding of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which fought against American forces during the U.S. occupation. It draws strength from a core of foreign fighters and has imposed a strict interpretation of Islamic law in territories it controls.
The Nusra Front imposes similar laws but the two groups have come to blows over power and land disputes – in January, the Nusra Front, many Islamist militias, and elements of the mainstream rebel Free Syrian Army have fought ISIS throughout Syria, after the group refused to heed warnings to halt it attacks against rebels it considers “infidels.”
Fighters from a large array of local rebel groups have also been clashing with ISIS militants in the latest round of clashes in Deir al-Zor.
And despite the infighting, some rebel groups managed to keep up their attacks against regime troops stationed at the military airport in Deir al-Zor, according to activists.
Meanwhile, ISIS militants clashed with the Kurdish PYD militia in Hassakeh province, further east, the Observatory said. The Kurdish fighters also killed an unspecified number of ISIS fighters in an ambush, it said.
And in Raqqa province, the Observatory said, the PYD and Islamist militias – which rarely cooperate – were fighting together against ISIS militants.
The violence in the east comes days in the wake of the withdrawal of the last batch of rebel fighters from the Old City of Homs, under an agreement that saw rebel groups release civilian and military hostages, and allow aid to reach two besieged pro-regime villages in Aleppo province.
Regime forces Sunday shelled the neighborhood of Waer on the outskirts of Homs, the only remaining rebel bastion, the Observatory said.
The nationwide death toll from violence has topped 200 fighters and civilians in recent days, according to the Observatory.