US-backed Syrian rebels say they are within 48 hours of reaching the Isil-held town of Dabiq, which is regarded by the jihadists as the preordained site of the final apocalyptic battle between Muslims and Christians.
American, Turkish and opposition forces are approaching the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s northern stronghold, which the militants believe will be the battle that sparks the end of the world.
Prophet Muhammad foretold 1,400 years ago “the last hour will not come” until an Islamic army defeated “the Romans”, there. The extremist group’s modern reading posits the Crusaders – the invading Americans and their allies – as the Romans.
Although Dabiq, a town in relatively flat countryside northeast of Aleppo and close to the Turkish border, holds little strategic value, Isil is expected to defend it fiercely because of its ideological importance.
Isil has in recent weeks sent several hundred of its more experienced fighters to defend the town, which it has held since August 2014.
One rebel commander said their advance had been slowed because the militants had heavily mined the area.
More than 21 fighters were killed and 35 wounded in the booby traps and mortar fire in the village of Turkman Barih, some three miles from Dabiq. The deaths toll among the Syrian rebels was the highest since Turkey sent troops and tanks into Syria in August.
The Free Syrian Army fighters, supported by 300 US special forces on the ground, have been pushing southwards in an attempt to clear Isil from the Turkish border and cut off their supply routes.
The rebels have captured other villages near Dabiq in recent days and were expecting to reach the town’s outskirts within 48 hours, Ahmed Osman, a commander of the Sultan Murad rebel group, said on Monday.
“The coalition actively supporting the rebels as they advance to within a few kilometres of (its) weakening stronghold” of Dabiq, Brett McGurk, Washington’s special envoy for the coalition, said in a Tweet.
Washington believes taking Dabiq could strike at Islamic State morale as it prepares to fend off expected offensives against Iraq’s Mosul and Syria’s Raqqa, the largest cities held by the jihadists.
The group has used Dabiq as a theological raison d’etre for fighting in Syria.
Isil named its main English-language propaganda magazine after the town, regularly writing about the significance of the battle for Dabiq in Islamic history.
“The spark has been lit in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq,” Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, one of Isil’s founders, said in a 2015 issue of the magazine.
But analysts believe a loss in Dabiq will not dent the group’s resolve.
“If they lose the battle, I’m sure they’ll fold it into their narrative of ‘in God’s good time’, said Kyle Orton of the Henry Jackson Society think-tank. “The idea is that there is much suffering and many setbacks needed before the promised land.”