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ISIS suffers huge symbolic loss in Dabiq, Syria, to Turkey-backed rebels

BEIRUT - Turkish-backed Syrian opposition forces have captured the symbolically significant town of Dabiq from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS,) the factions said Sunday morning.

A commander of the Syrian opposition Hamza Brigade said ISIS fighters put up “minimal” resistance to defend the northern Syrian town before withdrawing in the direction of the much larger ISIS-held town of al-Bab to the south.

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Saif Abu Bakr said some 2,000 opposition fighters pushed into Dabiq with tank and artillery support from the Turkish army. The commander said the extremists left the town heavily mined.

Both Turkish and international coalition warplanes conducted airstrikes on Dabiq and nearby Arshak, the Turkish state-run Anadolu news agency reported.

ISIS took control of the town, which had a prewar population of about 3,000 people, in August 2014. The group’s propaganda had boasted of the fight for the northern Syrian town, citing Islamic lore that it would be the scene of a major battle between crusaders and army of the Muslim caliphate that would herald Doomsday. The group’s English language magazine, Dabiq, is named after the town, and in 2014 they said they had buried the American captive Peter Abdul-Rahman Kassig there.

ISIS’ elusive leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in a rare audio recording last year, repeatedly referenced the city.

In the recording Baghdadi brought up the idea of this epic final battle which based on a 1,400-year old prophecy about “Crusader forces” attempting to conquer Muslim land in a place called “Dabiq,” but Muslim armies fight them and emerge victorious. They then conquer Rome and end up ruling the entire world. According to the prophecy, this battle in “Dabiq” would be a sign marking the beginning of the end of the world. ISIS has been promoting the idea that Dabiq exists for real near Azaz, north of Aleppo.

“They know what await them in Dabiq and Ghouta ... it’s defeat and destruction,” Baghdadi said. “They know it’s the final battle, and subsequently we will conquer them when they no longer could conquer us ... and Islam anew prevails over the world until the end of time.”

The Turkish military intervened in the Syrian war in August this year under orders from Ankara to clear the border area from ISIS and from U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish forces linked Turkey’s own outlawed Kurdish insurgency. The Turkish government describes both groups as terrorists.

Syrian opposition forces backed by Turkish ground and air forces have since expelled Islamic State militants from their last positions along the Syrian-Turkish frontier and are closing in on Al-Bab, one of the last remaining ISIS strongholds in Syria’s contested Aleppo province.

Turkey has bused thousands of opposition fighters from other fronts in northern Syria to the frontier as part of operation “Euphrates Shield,” named after the vital river that runs through the region.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights group, which monitors the conflict through a network of local contacts, said the extremist group had sent over 1,000 fighters to defend Dabiq last week before withdrawing hurriedly.

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