1000 Syrian rebels defect to Islamic State
MOUSAB AL HAMADEE AND ROY GUTMAN
A Syrian rebel brigade defected to the Islamic State this week, a sign that the extremist group continues to build strength after seizing vast territories in western Iraq and eastern Syria, anti-government activists say.
The 1000-strong Dawud Brigade, which had been based in Sarmin, a town in Syria’s Idlib province, arrived Sunday in Raqqa, a city in northeast Syria that the Islamic State has made its main headquarters for more than a year.
The defecting rebels moved in a convoy of more than 100 vehicles, including 10 tanks that had been seized from the Syrian army, the activists said. In order to cross the lines of pro-Western rebels who are fighting the Islamic State, the defecting rebels said they were heading to Aleppo to confront government forces now attempting to lay siege to rebel-held parts of Syria’s biggest city.
Dawud, with mostly Islamists in its ranks, has a complex history of relations with the Islamic State, and the impact of its departure from an anti-government umbrella group, the Sham Army, wasn’t immediately clear. The big question was whether other groups or individuals would follow suit.
The Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has called for Muslims throughout the world to travel to the Islamic caliphate the group has established in the areas of Iraq and Syria it controls.
One Syrian journalist put down Dawud’s departure to threats made by other rebel groups that feared the brigade as a potential fifth column that could wreak havoc in an area from which the extremists were thought to have been expelled in January. The Sham Army claimed that it had expelled Dawud.
The journalist, Ammar Abu Shahin, said the expulsion came after Islamic State advances in Syria’s Deir el-Zour and Aleppo provinces prompted anti-Islamic State rebels in Idlib and Hama provinces to look for sleeper cells.
“Frankly speaking, people in the countryside of Idlib are in a real panic about the advancement of the Islamic State,” he said.