Oct. 16, 2016 7:59 a.m. ET
Syrian rebels backed by the U.S. and Turkey said Sunday they had seized control of the symbolically important town of Dabiq from Islamic State as part of a broader offensive against the extremist group in northern Syria.
A coalition of rebel factions have advanced rapidly against Islamic State and captured territory in northern Syria since a Turkish-backed offensive began in August. The operation was launched to cut off supply lines to the group’s de facto capital, Raqqa, and drive it from a 60-mile stretch of territory along the border, as well as counter the growing influence of U.S.-backed Kurdish militias in Syria.
Dabiq, about 6 miles from the Turkish border, has played an outsize role in Islamic State’s propaganda since it was seized by the group in 2014. Sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad identify the town as the site of an apocalyptic future battle where a Muslim army will defeat a Western army. The group named its English-language magazine Dabiq.
Rebel groups had been girding for a long and difficult battle for Dabiq given its religious and symbolic importance. They launched an offensive to retake the town and surrounding area two weeks ago, then began an attack on Dabiq on Saturday—one day before they declared victory.
“It’s symbolic to Islamic State,” said Abdulsalaam Abdulrazaq, a spokesman for Nour al-Deen al-Zinki, one of the Syrian rebel groups participating in the battle. “And many of its fighters joined ISIS for the sake of the Dabiq battle because they believe they are the righteous ones and that they will be victorious.”
The offensive began with airstrikes and artillery attacks from the Turkish military, which is part of the U.S.-led coalition battling Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. That was followed by a ground assault by rebels from numerous directions, rebel commanders said. Islamic State militants sent snipers and suicide bombers to attack the advancing rebels—killing several—before withdrawing.
By Sunday afternoon, rebels were combing the area looking for explosives planted by Islamic State, a common practice by the extremist group before it withdraws from territory, said Mohammad Nour, a spokesman with the Sultan Murad rebel faction.
The loss was just the latest to plague Islamic State militants after a series of significant setbacks in Syria and Iraq at the hands of various forces, rebel commanders said. A coalition of forces in neighboring Iraq are preparing for a battle to take the city of Mosul from Islamic State, the group’s only remaining stronghold in that country.
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Syrian rebels said they captured the village of Dabiq from Islamic State on Sunday, forcing the jihadist group from a stronghold where it had promised to fight a final, apocalyptic battle with the West.
Its defeat at Dabiq, long a mainstay of Islamic State’s propaganda, underscores the group’s declining fortunes this year as it suffered battlefield defeats in Syria and Iraq and lost a string of senior leaders in targeted air strikes.
The group, whose lightning advance through swathes of the two countries and declaration that it had established a new caliphate stunned world leaders in 2014, is now girding for an offensive against Iraq’s Mosul, its most prized possession.
The rebels, backed by Turkish tanks and warplanes, took Dabiq and neighboring Soran after clashes on Sunday morning, said Ahmed Osman, head of the Sultan Murad group, one of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions involved in the fighting.
“The Daesh myth of their great battle in Dabiq is finished,” he told Reuters, using a pejorative name for Islamic State.
The Free Syrian Army is an umbrella group for rebels seeking to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad in a civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions, dragging in regional and global powers and creating space for jihadists.
An Islamic prophecy names Dabiq as the site of a battle between Muslims and infidels that will presage doomsday, a message Islamic State used extensively in its propaganda, going so far as to name its main publication after the village.
It also chose Dabiq as the location for its killing in 2014 of Peter Kassig, an American aid worker held hostage by the group, by Mohammed al-Emwazi, better known as Jihadi John.
However, it has appeared to back away from Dabiq’s symbolism since advances by the FSA groups backed by Turkey had put it at risk of capture, saying in a more recent statement that this battle was not the one described in the prophecy.
The village, at the foot of a small hill in the fertile plains of Syria’s northwest about 14 km (9 miles) from the Turkish border and 33 km north of Aleppo, has little strategic significance in its own right.
But Dabiq and its surroundings, where the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Islamic State had brought 1,200 fighters in recent weeks, occupied a salient into territory captured by the Turkey-backed rebels.
Ankara launched the Euphrates Shield operation, bringing rebels backed by its own armor and air force into action against Islamic State, in August, aiming to clear the group from its border and stop Kurdish groups gaining ground in that area.
A Turkish military source said that while Dabiq was largely under control, Islamic State fighters were still firing on the FSA groups from outside the village and that some rebels had been killed in blasts by landmines and other bombs.
The rebels and Turkish military were working to secure Dabiq’s surroundings to prevent any remaining Islamic State fighters trapped in the area from escaping.
Since early 2016, Islamic State’s territorial possessions in Syria have been steadily eroded by the Syrian Democratic Forces, an umbrella group of Kurdish and Arab militias backed by the United States, which in August took the city of Manbij.
Turkey’s campaign has since cut the jihadist group off from the Turkish border, long its most reliable entry point for supplies and foreign fighters.
Meanwhile, air strikes have killed a succession of Islamic State leaders in Syria, including its “war minister” Omar al-Shishani and Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, one of its leading strategists and an architect of its shift towards plotting attacks in Europe.
In Iraq, the army backed by Shi’ite Muslim militia groups has this year recaptured Falluja and is now poised for an offensive on Mosul, where Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in 2014 declared himself heir to Islam’s caliphs.
However the militants still hold most of Syria’s Euphrates basin, from al-Bab, 26 km southeast of Dabiq, through the group’s capital of Raqqa and to the Iraqi border.
(Additional reporting by Orhan Coskun in Ankara; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Ros Russell)
Tags: Assad, Bashar al-Assad, Dabiq, Daesh, Euphrates Shield, Free Syrian Army, FSA, Iraq, ISIL, ISIS, Islamic state, Kurdish militias, Kurds, Mosul, Nour al-Deen al-Zinki, Prophet Muhammad, Russia, Shi'ite Muslim militia groups, Sultan Murad, Syria, Syrian Democratic Forces, Syrian rebels, Turkey, U. S., U.S. led coalition