Turkish-backed Syrian rebels have captured the symbolically important northern Syrian village of Dabiq from Islamic State militants.
The seizure of the village, 10 kilometers from the Turkish border, was announced by Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu as he met with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and other leaders in London as part of talks on the conflict in Syria.
Dabiq holds little tactical value for IS but is of major symbolic importance for the jihadists, according to Turkish leaders and political activists in the war-savaged country.
Dabiq holds religious significance for IS because of an eighth-century, end-of-times Sunni prophecy predicting it will be the site of an apocalyptic showdown between Islam and Christianity. Islamic State propagandists have encouraged supporters to believe doomsday is imminent, naming one of its major online English-language publications, Dabiq.
Every new edition of Dabiq opens with a quote by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the mentor of IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, claiming, "The spark has been ignited in Iraq, and its flames will grow until they burn the Crusader armies in Dabiq."
Before the final assault on the town, IS propagandists appeared to had been readying their supporters for a defeat at Dabiq, distancing the fight for Dabiq from the epic doomsday showdown, known as al-Malhamah al-Kubra, they once forecast. Last week, in an online pamphlet, the jihadist propagandists downplayed the current fight for Dabiq.
Anti-IS fighters and their Turkish backers "have amassed in Aleppo, announcing Dabiq as their major goal," the jihadists said, thinking they can score "a great moral victory against the Islamic State."
But "the great epic of Dabiq will be preceded by great events and apocalyptic omens," they added. "These hit-and-run battles in Dabiq and its outskirts -- the lesser Dabiq battle -- will end in the greater Dabiq epic." When that great showdown is likely to come, the propagandists don't explain.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter thanked Turkey for its efforts in the operation to capture Dabiq, and said "its liberation gives the campaign to deliver ISIL a lasting defeat new momentum in Syria."
The assault on Dabiq was part of Turkey's wider military intervention aimed at creating "a terror-free safe zone of 5,000 square kilometers" in northern Syria, Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan said.
Turkey launched the mission called Operation Euphrates Shield on August 24 and its goal is to push well back from the border not only IS jihadists but also the Syrian Kurdish militia, the People's Protection Units, or YPG.
Operation Euphrates Shield has dashed the Syrian Kurds' hope of linking all four Kurdish cantons along the frontier, undermining the YPG ambition of carving out an independent state.
Jarabulus and al-Rai became the first two towns to be captured from IS by the Turkish-backed Syrian rebels. "We are now advancing. Where? To Dabiq," Erdoğan said in his televised comments Saturday, speaking from the Black Sea province of Rize.
He added that Turkey would like to see some of the 3 million refugees that have fled Syria to Turkey return home. "Let's create space for them," he said. "They can go to their own lands, we can make them live there safely."
Syrian political activists and NGO workers say many refugees would likely return.
"If the Turkish government and its allies can ensure safety in the zone they carve out, many refugees would go back," activist and NGO worker Eyad Kharaba said.
Rebel commanders say after Dabiq, they will target the town of al-Bab, northeast of Aleppo city. That move could lead to a confrontation with the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces. They have also announced their intention of targeting al-Bab.
A European diplomat told VOA last month that he suspected the Turkey-backed forces would also start moving not only south to the strategic town of al-Bab but also west "to the towns of Marea and Tell Rifaat," which is currently occupied by the YPG and adjoins Afrin, a Kurdish enclave the YPG hoped to link with three cantons east of the Euphrates River.
As Turkey expands its buffer zone with FSA boots on the ground, Ankara already is making clear how it intends to administer its northern Syria "protectorate."
Western NGOs have been tipped off by Turkish counterparts that Turkish and Syrian NGOs favored by Erdoğan will be key in ruling the protectorate. The Turkish authorities are already in the process of establishing pro-Turkish town councils in the zone.