ISTANBUL — The Syrian military and the Islamic State engaged in fierce battle Saturday as the government tried unsuccessfully to dislodge the radical Islamists from a gas field seized two days earlier in an attack marked by the executions of 200 soldiers, sources close to the scene said.
Using 23-mm heavy machine guns, forces of the Islamic State were able to chase government aircraft away from the Sha’er gas field in the Syrian desert east of Homs, anti-government activist Bybars Tillawi told McClatchy by Skype. At least 20 government troops were killed, he said.
Abu Bilal al Homsi, an official of the Islamic State, told McClatchy that after conquering the site Thursday, the al Qaida offshoot executed 200 government troops.
A video posted on YouTube on Thursday showed militants of the Islamic State walking through the gas field and speaking with animation as they examined what appeared to be more than 50 bodies, many with gunshot wounds in the head, chest and legs.
Fifteen fighters of the Islamic State died in Thursday’s clashes, Homsi told McClatchy by Skype.
Homsi said the radical Islamists had also captured 200 civilians and plans to put them on trial under Islamic Sharia law. They are likely to be found guilty and executed because they had been working with the Syrian government, he said via Skype.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based group linked with the government opposition, said altogether 270 government troops, guards and employees in the gas field had been killed since the Islamic State seized the gas field Thursday.
With its capture of the gas field, the Islamists now control more than 35 percent of Syrian territory, the Observatory said, in addition to the nearly 50 percent of neighboring Iraq now in their grip.
The Islamic State’s conquest of the site opened a rare and bloody confrontation with the Syrian regime, and quite possibly a new phase in the war. For more than a year, fighters of the extremist group have been battling the anti-government Free Syrian Army and often working almost in tandem with the government.
Just 10 days ago, Islamic State fighters in Aleppo opened the way to government forces to conquer the industrial zone in Syria’s biggest city, a major boost in the regime’s effort to encircle the city and starve out the rebel forces, according to senior aides in the U.S.-backed Syrian Opposition Coalition.
In the past two weeks, the Islamic State also has gained nearly total control of eastern Syria, the heart of the country’s oil and gas producing area. But there was no sign that the al Qaida offshoot intended to capture the few remaining government positions – a military airport and parts of the town of Deir Al Zour.
Homsi said that the Islamic State deployed 100 fighters to seize the field, among them very experienced fighters who had fought before in the deserts of Afghanistan and Iraq and who knew how to operate with battles in such barren areas.
He said the battle was led by Hassan Abbous, leader of Dawud Brigade who defected from the Free Syrian Army to the Islamic State on July 7. Abbous is said to have led some 1,000 militants and a big convoy of armor from a part of Idlib under FSA control to Raqqa, the main stronghold of the Islamic State in the east of Syria. There, he pledging fealty to the Islamic caliphate, and in turn was named the emir of Homs.
Among the killed was also the only media activist accompanying the fighters. Activists said that because of his death, there was limited media coverage of a battle that they described as one of the biggest against the Syrian regime in three years.
It isn’t clear how the Syrian government will be able to retake the gas field, short of a decision by the Islamic State forces to retreat. The conscript army has long avoided sending infantry in to battle the Syrian opposition, and instead has countered its opponents by relying on standoff artillery, aerial bombardment and dropping improvised “barrel bombs” on populated areas.
That will not work in the sparsely populated region surrounding the Shaer field, and a resort to artillery and missiles could destroy the entire gas producing complex. The government used its bases in the ancient city of Palmyra, which lies nearby along with two military airports in the nearby desert in Saturday’s attacks, but it appears to have few options in the time ahead.
"We as Syrians are worried that the fight between the regime and the Islamic State might lead to the destruction of the field, despite the fact that the natural resources of Syria were always in the hands of one family," Tillawi said in a reference to the family of president Bashar Assad.
Roy Gutman contributed. Alhamadee is a special correspondent.