Image: The Turkish-backed Syrian rebel force captured the border town of Jarablus at the end of August. Reuters
US-backed Syrian rebels say they are within 48 hours of reaching the Isil-held town of Dabiq, which is regarded by the jihadists as the preordained site of the final apocalyptic battle between Muslims and Christians.
American, Turkish and opposition forces are approaching the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s northern stronghold, which the militants believe will be the battle that sparks the end of the world.
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Prophet Muhammad foretold 1,400 years ago “the last hour will not come” until an Islamic army defeated “the Romans”, there. The extremist group’s modern reading posits the Crusaders – the invading Americans and their allies – as the Romans.
Although Dabiq, a town in relatively flat countryside northeast of Aleppo and close to the Turkish border, holds little strategic value, Isil is expected to defend it fiercely because of its ideological importance.
Isil has in recent weeks sent several hundred of its more experienced fighters to defend the town, which it has held since August 2014.
One rebel commander said their advance had been slowed because the militants had heavily mined the area.
More than 21 fighters were killed and 35 wounded in the booby traps and mortar fire in the village of Turkman Barih, some three miles from Dabiq. The deaths toll among the Syrian rebels was the highest sinceTurkey sent troops and tanks into Syria in August.
The Free Syrian Army fighters, supported by 300 US special forces on the ground, have been pushing southwards in an attempt to clear Isil from the Turkish border and cut off their supply routes.
The rebels have captured other villages near Dabiq in recent days and were expecting to reach the town’s outskirts within 48 hours, Ahmed Osman, a commander of the Sultan Murad rebel group, said on Monday.
“The coalition actively supporting the rebels as they advance to within a few kilometres of (its) weakening stronghold” of Dabiq, Brett McGurk, Washington’s special envoy for the coalition, said in a Tweet.
Washington believes taking Dabiq could strike at Islamic State morale as it prepares to fend off expected offensives against Iraq’s Mosul and Syria’s Raqqa, the largest cities held by the jihadists.
The group has used Dabiq as a theological raison d’etre for fighting in Syria.
Isil named its main English-language propaganda magazine after the town, regularly writing about the significance of the battle for Dabiq in Islamic history.
“The spark has been lit in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq,” Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, one of Isil’s founders, said in a 2015 issue of the magazine.
But analysts believe a loss in Dabiq will not dent the group’s resolve.
“If they lose the battle, I’m sure they’ll fold it into their narrative of ‘in God’s good time’, said Kyle Orton of the Henry Jackson Society think-tank. “The idea is that there is much suffering and many setbacks needed before the promised land.”
At least 15 Turkish-backed Syrian rebels have been killed in clashes with Islamic State militants, as they move on the group’s stronghold of Dabiq.
A monitoring group reported that the rebels were killed by landmines that exploded while they attempted to secure the village of Turkman Barih.
One rebel commander said he expected to reach Dabiq, which is about 5km (3 miles) to the west, within 48 hours.
Dabiq holds great symbolic value to IS and features heavily in its propaganda.
The small town is named in Islamic apocalyptic prophecies as the site of an end-of-times showdown between Muslims and their enemies.
An alliance of Syrian Arab rebel groups, supported by Turkish air strikes, tanks and special forces, launched an operation to drive IS militants and Syrian Kurdish fighters from an area along Turkey’s border with Syria in late August.
Since then, they have captured the key towns of Jarablus and al-Rai, and taken control of some 960 sq km (370 sq miles) of territory, according to Turkey.
On Monday morning, Turkish military officials said there had been “intense” clashes south of al-Rai in the past 24 hours, which had left 15 Syrian rebels dead and 35 others wounded.
Turkish warplanes, artillery and rocket launchers meanwhile targeted dozens of IS targets, they added.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group, put the death toll at 21 and said the rebels had been killed by landmines and booby-traps planted by IS militants near Turkman Barih before they withdrew on Sunday.
Turkish tanks are supporting the rebel advance south of the town of al-Rai. Reuters
The rebels have captured other villages near Dabiq in recent days and were expecting to reach the town’s outskirts within 48 hours, a commander of the Sultan Murad rebel group, Ahmed Osman, told Reuters news agency on Monday.
The US-led multinational coalition against IS was also supporting the rebels as they advanced “to within a few kilometres of [IS]’s weakening stronghold Dabiq”, US special presidential envoy Brett McGurk wrote on Twitter on Sunday evening.
Also on Monday, Syrian government and Russian warplanes carried out more air strikes on the nearby city of Aleppo, as troops continued an all-out assault on besieged rebel-held areas, activists said.
An underground hospital in rebel-held Hama province was damaged by air strikes on Sunday. UOSSM USA
The International Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations and the Syrian Observatory also reported that air strikes on Sunday had damaged and put out of service a key hospital in a part of Hama province controlled by the rebels.
The facility near Kfar Zeita, which is known as the “Cave Hospital” because it is built inside a mountain, was probably hit by “bunker-buster missiles”, the hospital’s director Dr Abdallah Darwish said.
The strikes came a day after the main trauma hospital in rebel-held Aleppo was put out of service after being hit for the second time in a week, activists said.
From BBC News: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-37541058
Syrian rebels backed by Turkey and a U.S.-led coalition are closing in on the Islamic State-held village of Dabiq, the site of an apocalyptic prophesy central to the militant group’s ideology.
Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebel groups have been pushing southwards into Islamic State’s territory in an operation backed by Turkey since Aug. 24, and have taken villages near Dabiq in recent days. A rebel leader said the plan was to reach Dabiq within 48 hours, but cautioned Islamic State had heavily mined the surrounding area, a sign of its importance to the group.
Although Dabiq, a village in relatively flat countryside northeast of Aleppo, holds little strategic value, it is seen by Islamic State as the place where a final battle will take place between Muslims and infidels, heralding Doomsday.
The group has named its online English-language magazine Dabiq and in April and May sent about 800 fighters there to defend it against advances by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Monday.
“If matters proceed as planned, within 48 hours we will be in Dabiq,” Ahmed Osman, commander of the Sultan Murad FSA group, said in a voice recording sent to Reuters.
However, Islamic State has heavily mined the area, making progress around Turkman Bareh slower than in other areas, said Osman, adding that 15 deaths among insurgent ranks in the past 24 hours were caused by mines and mortar fire.
The U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State is actively supporting the rebels as they advance “to within a few kilometres of (its) weakening stronghold” of Dabiq, Brett McGurk, Washington’s special envoy for the coalition, said in a Tweet.
Islamic State has exploited the five-year-old Syrian civil war to seize swathes of territory.
Washington believes taking Dabiq could strike at Islamic State morale as it prepares to fend off expected offensives against Iraq’s Mosul and Syria’s Raqqa, the largest cities held by the jihadists, officials from a coalition country said.
Turkish warplanes hit Islamic State targets in the areas of Dabiq, Akhtarin and Turkman Bareh, destroying nine buildings including a command post, gun positions and an ammunition depot, a statement by Turkey’s military said on Monday.
The latest fighting marks an escalation since Turkish troops crossed the border into Syria on Aug. 24 to back opposition fighters battling Islamic State in an operation Ankara says is aimed at removing the border threat the jihadists pose.
Nearly a dozen air strikes by the U.S.-backed coalition killed 13 militants, while the Turkish army said it also fired on Islamic State from inside Turkey after the jihadists used rockets to target its border town of Kilis.
(Reporting by Orhan Coskun, Tom Perry, Ayla Jean Yackley and Daren Butler; Writing by Angus McDowall; Editing by Dominic Evans)
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