Turkish-backed rebels today captured the emblematic northern Syrian town of Dabiq from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group, dealing a major symbolic blow to the jihadists.
The defeat for ISIS came as US Secretary of State John Kerry was due to meet European allies in London as part of a new diplomatic push to end Syria’s conflict, which has left more than 300,000 people dead since 2011.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Turkish state media and a rebel faction said opposition forces backed by Turkish warplanes and artillery had seized control of Dabiq today.
The town, in Syria’s northern province of Aleppo, is of little strategic value.
But Dabiq holds crucial ideological importance for ISIS and its followers because of a Sunni prophecy that states it will be the site of an apocalyptic battle between Christian forces and Muslims.
The Observatory, a Britain-based monitoring group, said rebel forces “captured Dabiq after ISIS members withdrew from the area”.
The Fastaqim Union, an Ankara-backed rebel faction involved in the battle, said Dabiq had fallen “after fierce clashes”.
The Observatory said fighters also captured the nearby town of Sawran.
Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency also said the rebels had taken control of Dabiq and Sawran and were working to dismantle explosives laid by retreating ISIS fighters.
It said nine rebels were killed and 28 wounded during clashes on Saturday.
Dabiq has become a byword among ISIS supporters for a struggle against the West, with Washington and its allies bombing jihadists portrayed as modern-day Crusaders.
Earlier this week, ISIS downplayed the importance of the rebel advance on the town.
“These hit-and-run battles in Dabiq and its outskirts — the lesser Dabiq battle — will end in the greater Dabiq epic,” the group said in a pamphlet published online Thursday.
Turkey launched an unprecedented operation inside Syria on August 24, helping Syrian rebels to rid its frontier of ISIS jihadists and Syrian Kurdish militia.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey would push further south to create a 5,000-square-kilometre (1,900 square-mile) safe zone in Syria.
The border area has become deeply unstable and today Turkish state media reported that suicide bombers blew themselves up when police raided their sleeper cell in the city of Gaziantep.
Media reports spoke of casualties without providing precise numbers.