ISTANBUL -- Syrian government troops failed on two fronts Monday to reverse gains by fighters loyal to the Islamic State, a sign that the insurgents who have captured half of Iraq are capable of battling Syria's government as well.
Anti-government activists said 14 government troops were killed in battles for two villages outside the east Syrian city of Deir el Zour. The Syrian army fared no better in an attempt to recapture the Shaer gas field near in the ancient city of Palmyra, losing six soldiers and failing to dislodge the Islamic State fighters.
The clash in Deir el Zour was the latest sign that the Islamic State, which had frontally attacked the regime only once before -- in the desert near Homs -- is prepared to fight it as the opportunity arises. A member of the Islamist movement told McClatchy that it intends to remove the regime of President Bashar Assad from Deir el Zour province altogether.
The latest confrontation began Friday when the Islamic State, which now controls more than 35 percent of Syria, ordered the last remnant of U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army troops in the province to leave the towns of Ayyash and Ien Al Bujuma'a. This created a temporary power vacuum that government forces attempted to fill by setting up checkpoints around the towns.
The Islamic State launched an attack Saturday that ended with it seizing the two towns and killing 14 government soldiers and three officers.
Activists said regime troops apparently were trying to advance toward Ayyash in a bid to protect military depots in a neighboring area of Badyat Ayyash, said to contain the third biggest depots for weapons and ammunition in Syria.
A member of the Islamic State forces told McClatchy that Emir Abu Omar Al Shishani, the top officer in the area, told them that the Islamic State will remove the regime from the entire province of Deir el Zour.
The capture of nearly all Syria's oil and gas has proved a financial bonanza for the Islamic State, which appears to be trying to win the hearts and minds of Iraqis and Syrians by guaranteeing low oil prices.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based anti-government group, said fuel tankers with Iraqi license plates and driven by Iraqi nationals have entered Syria and reached Al Omar oilfield near Deir el Zour in the last few days, waiting to be filled with oil before they return to Iraq through the territory controlled by the Islamic State.
The observatory said the group is selling oil to Syrian dealers for $12 a barrel, on the condition that those dealers sell them for no more than $18 a barrel to civilians, in an attempt to win support from people living in territories under its control.
(Alhamadee is a McClatchy special correspondent. Roy Gutman in Baghdad contributed.)
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