BEIRUT- Jihadists have launched a fresh bid to take over the Syria-Iraq border area and set up a so-called Islamic state they can control, rebels, activists and a monitoring group say.
“Their name is the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Their goal is to link together the two areas (Syria, 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 Iraq border, Hussein said ISIL seeks to crush Al-Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda’s Syria affiliate, and control the eastern, energy-rich province of Deir Ezzor bordering Iraq.
“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 long-time 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.
Once welcomed into the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad, ISIL’s aim to dominate and its horrific abuses of civilians and rival fighters sparked the wrath of much of Syria’s opposition, including former ally Al-Nusra.
Rooted in Al-Qaeda in Iraq, ISIL split from the network after overall Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri ordered it to stop fighting Al-Nusra.
In February, ISIL withdrew from most of Deir Ezzor after pitched battles with Al-Nusra and other Islamist groups, said rebel spokesman Omar Abu Layla.
But ISIL has since deployed “3,000 fighters from Raqa to Deir Ezzor”, Abu Layla told AFP.
“Most of them are foreigners, including Europeans, Tunisians and Saudis,” he said.
“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.”