BEIRUT (AP) — Turkish-backed Syrian opposition forces captured the symbolically-significant town of Dabiq from the Islamic State group on Sunday as government forces reversed recent rebel advances in the center of the country.
Though only a small town of marginal strategic importance in northern Syria, Dabiq has figured centrally in IS propaganda. Citing Islamic lore, the extremist group claims it will be the stage for an apocalyptic battle between Crusaders and an army of the Muslim caliphate that will herald doomsday.
But Islamic State fighters put up “minimal” resistance in defending Dabiq, according to a commander of the Syrian opposition Hamza Brigade, before they withdrew south to al-Bab, which remains under IS control.
Saif Abu Bakr said some 2,000 opposition fighters pushed into Dabiq with tank and artillery support from the Turkish army. The commander said IS 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.
The U.S. envoy to the coalition against IS, Brett McGurk, tweeted Sunday that the extremist group had promised a “final victory” in Dabiq, but that its fighters had instead “fled in defeat at the hands of Syrians supported by our @coalition.”
Government forces meanwhile sustained their push against rebels in the central Hama province after an ambitious monthlong campaign spearheaded by al-Qaida-linked insurgents ground to a halt amid factional infighting.
The rebels were within a few miles of the country’s fourth-largest city, also called Hama, when deadly clashes broke out among ultraconservative factions within the coalition.
The Syrian Army has capitalized on the fracture, retaking over a third of the territory it had lost over five weeks. On Sunday it announced it had retaken the strategic town of Maardes.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict through a network of contacts inside Syria, described the government’s control over the town as still tenuous, as fierce clashes between the two sides stretched into the evening.
The advance on Dabiq comes as Iraqi troops and allied, Iranian-backed militias prepare for a push on IS’s largest population center, the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. That operation is being coordinated closely with the U.S.
Turkey is also determined to define its interests in northern Iraq, and has sent some 500 of its own troops to train local militias in the region. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Friday his country was determined to participate in the battle for Mosul.
The Turkish deployment has angered the government in Baghdad, which has close ties to Turkey’s rival, Iran.
The Islamic State group has lost a quarter of its territory in Syria and Iraq since January 2015, according to a report by the IHS Conflict Monitor group, but still holds the Syrian cities of Raqqa and Deir el-Zour, as well as Mosul.
The Islamic State group seized Dabiq in August 2014, when its population was about 3,000 people. The extremist group named its English-language online magazine after the town. That same year, IS also announced that it was the burial site for American captive Peter Kassig, who took the first name Abdul-Rahman after converting to Islam during captivity.
The Britain-based Observatory said IS had sent over 1,000 fighters to defend Dabiq last week before withdrawing hurriedly.
The Turkish military intervened in the Syrian war in August this year under orders from Ankara to clear the border area of IS fighters and U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish forces linked to Turkey’s own outlawed Kurdish insurgency. The Turkish government considers both to be terrorist groups.
Syrian opposition fighters backed by Turkish ground and air forces have since expelled IS militants from their last positions along the Syrian-Turkish frontier and are closing in on al-Bab, one of their last remaining strongholds in Syria’s contested Aleppo province.
Turkey sent thousands of opposition fighters from other regions in northern Syria to the front as part of Operation Euphrates Shield. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Sunday that after taking Dabiq the Turkish-backed groups are determined to advance on al-Bab.
Turkey’s Erdogan has suggested that some of the nearly 3 million Syrian refugees in Turkey could return to the newly-liberated areas of their country.
“They can go to their own lands, we can let them live there safely,” he said. “That’s the step we will take. We have given our proposal to coalition powers and we are moving together.”
Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, and Zeynep Bilginsoy in Istanbul contributed to this report.