ISIS does about-face after losses in Iraq, Syria

Rebel fighters in the northern Syrian countryside on Sunday. As rebel forces continue to gain ground against ISIS, the group's proclamations have changed tone in preparation for prolonged retrenchment and survival.
Rebel fighters in the northern Syrian countryside on Sunday. As rebel forces continue to gain ground against ISIS, the group's proclamations have changed tone in preparation for prolonged retrenchment and survival.PHOTO: REUTERS

Terrorist group now says Dabiq battle is not the apocalyptic showdown that it promised

BEIRUT • Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) leaders had long promised their followers an apocalyptic battle - foretold, some believe, by Prophet Muhammad - in an otherwise nondescript village they controlled in northern Syria.

But the warriors of the self-declared caliphate lost the village, Dabiq, in just a few hours over the weekend as Syrian rebels, backed by Turkey, closed in. To soften the symbolic blow, ISIS switched rhetorical gears, declaring that the real Dabiq battle would come some other time.

The about-face was part of a larger repositioning as ISIS loses ground in Syria and Iraq, where forces backed by the United States began a drive on Monday to oust the group from the sprawling and strategically vital city of Mosul. On the defensive, the group has been making preparations for retrenchment and survival.

Hundreds of ISIS fighters and their families have fled to the group's de facto capital, the Syrian city of Raqqa, in recent days, according to several residents. They said that the arrivals had come from Mosul, as well as from areas around Dabiq in the Syrian province of Aleppo, and that they were waiting for ISIS authorities to find them housing.

The group has also been laying the groundwork to maintain its appeal in trying times. In recent months it began to signal that a drastic contraction or even a failure of its territorial proto-state would not spell defeat.

"The generation that has lived in the shadow of the caliphate, or has lived during its great battles, will be able - God willing - to keep its banner aloft," the group's weekly newsletter Al Naba said in June.

The article reminded followers that ISIS had earlier survived by fading into the desert after military defeat during the US occupation, only to re-emerge more formidably in Syria years later and eventually seize much of Iraq, including Mosul.

As Dabiq was surrounded by the Turkish-backed rebel force, the group's followers "began to frantically explain why the approaching showdown in Dabiq would not be THE showdown", Mr Will McCants, author of The ISIS Apocalypse, wrote on the blog Jihadica.

ISIS media outlets noted that other conditions for the prophesied battle had not materialised, like the appearance of a "crusader army", or the Mahdi, a Messiah-like figure, or an 80-nation coalition of fighters.

Dabiq has been central to the group's identity. ISIS' online magazine is called Dabiq, and its news agency, Amaq, is named after the surrounding area. And many ISIS opponents seized on the village's fall and the recalibration of the group's messaging as proof that its grand visions were falling apart.

"Due to unforeseen circumstances, ISIS declares that The Final Battle of The Apocalypse has been postponed," Mr Karl Sharro, a London-based architect with Lebanese-Iraqi roots who moonlights as a satirist of Middle East politics, teased on Sunday as the rebel troops swept in.

But some analysts cautioned that the shift in language could be just the latest example of the group's pragmatic flexibility, propaganda savvy and staying power.

Seizing the border area that includes Dabiq helped the rebels in several ways: It showed their potential backers that the rebels could fight the ISIS. It also carves out a relatively safe area for their Syrian supporters; some refugees have already returned to the area.

"Dabiq is free," Mr Mohammad Alloush, a spokesman for one of the rebel groups who has served as a negotiator in peace talks, declared on Twitter, referring to "the dream" that the group "used to exploit the simple-minded".

"Your caliphate is a myth," Mr Alloush said.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 20, 2016, with the headline 'ISIS does about-face after losses in Iraq, Syria'. Print Edition | Subscribe