BEIRUT: Syrian rebels dealt a major symbolic blow to the Islamic State group on Sunday by capturing the town of Dabiq where the terrorists had promised an apocalyptic battle.
The Turkish-backed opposition forces seized control of Dabiq and several nearby towns, in the latest in a series of territorial losses suffered by IS in Syria and Iraq.
The defeat for IS came as US Secretary of State John Kerry was 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 fighters backed by Turkish warplanes and artillery seized control of Dabiq.
The town, in Syria’s northern province of Aleppo, is of little strategic value. But Dabiq holds crucial ideological importance for IS and its followers because of a prophecy that states it will be the site of an end-of-times battle between Christian forces and Muslims.
The Observatory, a Britain-based monitoring group, said rebel forces “captured Dabiq after IS members withdrew from the area”.
The Fastaqim Union, an Ankara-backed rebel faction involved in the battle, said Dabiq had fallen “after fierce clashes”. It said rebels then went on to seize several nearby towns, including Sawran, Ihtimaylat, and Salihiyah.
Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency also said the rebels captured Dabiq and Sawran and were working to dismantle explosives laid by retreating IS 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.
But earlier this week, IS 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.
ISIS, which seized control of large parts of Syria and Iraq in mid-2014 and declared an Islamic “caliphate”, has been dealt a series of military defeats this year and is bracing for an assault on its key Iraqi stronghold Mosul.
Aleppo air raids
Turkey launched an unprecedented operation inside Syria on August 24, helping Syrian rebels to rid its frontier of IS jihadists and Syrian Kurdish militia.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Saturday 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 on Sunday three Turkish police officers were killed when suspected IS suicide bombers blew themselves up during a raid on their sleeper cell in the southeastern city of Gaziantep.
Fighting continued meanwhile in the city of Aleppo, where government troops have been waging a fierce Russian-backed offensive on rebels in the eastern quarters.
Clashes took place in Aleppo’s northern and southern outskirts on Sunday, as well as in the city centre, according to the Observatory.
AFP’s correspondent in Aleppo said there had been nearly non-stop air raids on the opposition-held half of the city since midnight.
The Observatory said at least four people were killed in raids on the city’s east on Sunday. The rebel fire on government-controlled districts meanwhile left three people dead and more than two dozen wounded according to state news agency SANA.
Fighting has surged in Aleppo following the collapse last month of a ceasefire brokered by the United States and Russia, raising deep international concern.
‘No-bombing zones’ on table
Kerry flew to London on Sunday to brief Washington’s European allies after “brainstorming” talks in Lausanne with the main players in Syria’s conflict.
The Swiss meeting on Saturday included key rebel backers Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, as well as regime supporters Iran and Russia.
But it did not produce a concrete plan to restore the truce that collapsed amid bitter recriminations between Washington and Moscow.
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Sunday said his country was “always ready to talk with everyone” on ways to end the conflict, and took a jab at France who he said was “not so involved” in peace efforts.
Putin had accused France of pushing for a UN proposal on Syria knowing Russia would veto it.
Kerry is expected to meet on Sunday with his counterparts from Britain and France, but hopes for a breakthrough have been dim.
British foreign minister Boris Johnson is expected to propose “no-bombing zones” for Syria — including Aleppo — during the meeting, the Sunday Times reported.
Quoting a source close to Johnson, the report said he would seek backing from Washington and others for a proposal to threaten strikes on Syrian military sites in retaliation for bombings of certain areas or facilities such as hospitals.