ISTANBUL/BEIRUT • Syrian rebels backed by Turkey and a US-led coalition are closing in on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)-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 ISIS' 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 ISIS had heavily mined the surrounding area, a sign of its importance to the group.
Although Dabiq, a village in flat countryside north-east of Aleppo, holds little strategic value, it is seen by ISIS 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 yesterday.
"If matters proceed as planned, within 48 hours, we will be in Dabiq," Mr Ahmed Osman, commander of the Sultan Murad FSA group, said in a voice recording sent to Reuters.
However, ISIS has heavily mined the area, making progress around Turkman Bareh slower than in other areas, said Mr Ahmed, adding that 15 deaths among insurgent ranks in the past 24 hours were caused by mines and mortar fire.
The US-led coalition against ISIS is actively supporting the rebels as they advance "to within a few kilometres of (its) weakening stronghold" of Dabiq, Mr Brett McGurk, Washington's special envoy for the coalition, said in a Tweet.
ISIS has exploited the five-year-old Syrian civil war to seize swathes of territory. Washington believes taking Dabiq could strike at ISIS' morale as it prepares to fend off expected offensives against Iraq's Mosul and Syria's Raqqa, the largest cities held by the militants, coalition officials said.
Turkish warplanes hit ISIS targets in the areas of Dabiq, Akhtarin and Turkman Bareh, destroying nine buildings including a command post, gun positions and an ammunition depot, Turkey's military said yesterday.
The latest fighting marks an escalation since Turkish troops crossed the border into Syria on Aug 24 to back opposition fighters battling ISIS in an operation Ankara says is aimed at removing the border threat the militants pose.