Small groups of Syrians are hunting down the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isis) fighters in one of their main strongholds in eastern Syria in a new guerrilla campaign that has emerged as a response to the Isis’s growing brutality.
The main aim is to generate fear among the Isis ranks, said the head of “White Shroud”, a group that says it has killed more than 100 Isis fighters in attacks in Deir al-Zor province in recent months.
The name reflects the group’s aim: the group’s leader, Abu Aboud, says that White Shroud is a reference to the death shroud it says awaits Isis fighters responsible for crimes against the Syrian people.
As the United States advances plans to train and equip the moderate opposition to President Bashar al-Assad as part of its strategy to tackle Isis, the appearance of such groups shows how it has generated new enemies on the ground.
Aboud, who declined to give his real name for security reasons, was a commander in an anti-Assad insurgent group crushed by the better armed and financed Isis as it seized almost full control of Deir al-Zor earlier this year.
The small band he now leads is in no position to deal a major blow to Isis. But it does pose an extra challenge as the US and its allies target the group in air strikes in both Syria and Iraq.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks the war, has recorded a rising number of attacks by gunmen on Isis targets in Deir al-Zor province. Together with Raqqa province further north, Deir al-Zor forms the bedrock of Isis’s influence in Syria.
White Shroud shows no mercy to Isis: when it manages to abduct one of its members, it is only to “liquidate” him later on, said Aboud.
It operates in and around the town of Al Bukamal at the Iraqi border – an area of crucial importance to Isis as the link between the territory it controls in Syria and Iraq. The group currently numbers 300 members, said Aboud.
“Eighty percent of the members of White Shroud did not take part in combat before [Isis] came. We trained them and they joined White Shroud because of the great oppression they felt after Islamic State took control,” said Aboud.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says White Shroud is one of several small groups that have taken up arms against Isis in Deir al-Zor province in recent months and are picking off Isis fighters whenever they get the chance.
They have all taken similarly menacing names. These include the “Phantom Brigade” and “The Brigade of the Angel of Death”, according to Rami Abdulrahman, who runs the Observatory. The latter says it gathers information from sources on all sides of the conflict.
Increasing attacks on Isis
One such group killed no fewer than 10 Isis fighters in a night-time gun attack on a checkpoint in the town of Al Mayadin in Deir al-Zor province last Thursday, the Observatory reported. In a separate attack, a gunman on a motorbike opened fire on another Isis checkpoint.
“There is an increase in their operations against Isis,” Abdulrahman said.
Isis has made plenty of enemies during its conquest of Deir al-Zor, an oil-producing region.
It expelled most other insurgent groups from Deir al-Zor in July, emboldened by rapid gains in Iraq where it seized the city of Mosul in June, capturing with it Iraqi army equipment that has been deployed in Syria.
Mirroring its approach elsewhere, Isis has used crucifixions and decapitations to suppress all opposition in Deir al-Zor. It executed 700 members of one rebellious tribe, the Sheitaat, in August, the Observatory reported.
Members of anti-Assad armed groups loosely referred to as the “Free Syrian Army” had the choice of fleeing, submitting to Isis rule, or death. The Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s official affiliate in Deir al-Zor, withdrew from the province.
The Syrian government still controls a portion of Deir al-Zor city and its airport.
“Secrecy is the most important element of White Shroud’s work,” said Aboud. He says that the group comprises four-man “cells” that work independently of each other.
One of White Shroud’s biggest operations was an attack on an Isis position in Al Bukamal in which around 11 Isis fighters were killed, according to the Observatory and Aboud.
The US-led air strikes are not making White Shroud’s job easier, said Aboud. Where Isis fighters once used to gather in large numbers, they now move in small groups, often at night, using motor bikes.
White Shroud’s spokesperson said the group is using weapons that formerly belonged to anti-Assad rebel groups.
The spokesperson, who gave his name as Abu Ali Albukamali, said that despite its modest resources, White Shroud had achieved its goal: “The aim of this group – spreading fear among Isis members – has been realised. Today, you never meet them walking alone. They mostly move in groups, afraid of abduction.” – Reuters