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Islamic State Suffers Spate of Desertions in E. Syria

FILE - Islamic State militants pass by a convoy in Tel Abyad town, northeast Syria.
FILE - Islamic State militants pass by a convoy in Tel Abyad town, northeast Syria.

Islamic State extremist groups have been struck by a wave of desertions in the eastern Syrian province of Deir ez-Zor, where they are combating efforts by local residents to wage a guerrilla campaign against them, activists said.

The desertions and resistance appear to have alarmed Islamic State leaders, who recently dispatched three security detachments of trusted militants from the Iraqi city of Mosul to oversee executions of suspected opponents and to launch a crackdown in the towns of Al-Mayadeen and Hatlah, a mainly Shi'ite village in the oil-rich province bordering Iraq, sources told VOA.

In email exchanges with VOA, activists from a group called Lift Siege, said a steady stream of Islamic State members has been deserting, including four commanders.

They name the commanders as Ammar Haddawi, Aamer Al-Naklawi, Mahmoud Al-Khalaf Al-Rasheideh and Abu Obaidah Al-Masri, who oversaw tax collection in Al-Mayadeen.

Commanders have sometimes absconded with large amounts of cash.

Members 'have run off'

“There's a good percentage of members who have run off,” said Adnan, one of the activists. “IS leaders have issued an order not to accept civilian ID documents unless the holders have official stamped mission-papers.”

ID documents are also being confiscated from fighters so that they can’t be used at checkpoints.

Last winter activists in Raqqa reported that passports were being taken from foreign recruits to the terror group to hinder desertions, with the fighters given poorly laminated, non-photo Islamic State identification cards.

Last week, the militants started deploying military reinforcements in the districts of the city of Deir ez-Zor that the group currently holds in apparent preparation for an assault on the besieged neighborhood of al-Jora, which together with the city’s al-Qusour district has been under control of regime forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since the start of this year.

In the province’s countryside, the Islamic State group holds sway but is facing renewed attacks by local resistance fighters in uncoordinated groups.

Many of the resistance fighters have no military training and first started to surface last year, but the numbers of those mounting hit-and-run attacks and carrying out assassinations have increased, activists say.

“These cells are clearly being effective in Al-Mayadeen and Al-Boukamal cities, but they are independent and don't work in an organized and unified way. Recently there were seven operations inside Al-Mayadeen city,” said Ghaith, another anti-Islamic State activist.

Anger over occupation

Lift Siege activists said anger at the occupation by Islamic State militants has mounted.

“There’s a big rejection of IS,” Adnan said, estimating that 80 percent of locals are opposed to the Islamic State group. “The remaining 20 percent can be divided into three groups: they're the diehard supporters of IS; the ambitious hoping for power and money; the third consists of people holding grudges against rebel groups who controlled the province before IS came.”

The raid in May by U.S. commandos on a compound in Deir ez-Zor in which an Islamic State commander, Abu Sayyaf, was killed, spooked the extremists and caused them to intensify their internal security operations.

But the raid strengthened the resolve of the resistance fighters.

As in Raqqa, Islamic State enforcers have reduced Internet availability to hinder foes from being able to communicate with each other and to the outside world, sources said.

Owners of Internet cafes in the villages and towns of al- Bsira, Abriha, al-Sabha, al-Dahla and Jdid Bakara in the eastern countryside of Deir ez-Zor have been ordered to remove any Wi-Fi supply to houses and stores neighboring their cafes.

Those who use the Internet inside cafes are carefully monitored. In some towns, the Islamic State group has banned Internet installation even for Islamic State fighters.

One Islamic State circular read: “It is prohibited to sell Internet devices unless getting formal permission from the security bureau.”

Efforts turn to kids

Struck by manpower shortages and eager to groom youngsters, the Islamic extremists are intensifying their efforts to recruit kids.

“They are organizing quizzes and competitions in mosques to tempt children with awards and financial and material prizes,” Adnan said.

A carrot-and-stick approach to governance is being pursued.

As well as a security crackdown and vicious punishment of enemies or suspected dissidents, the Islamic State group has improved the provision of basic services in some towns.

About 20 villages to the east of Deir ez-Zor city are now getting nearly 20 hours of electricity a day. And in Al-Mayadeen, water is also being provided more consistently, but it isn’t potable.