While attention is focused on upcoming offensives against Mosul and Raqqa, rebel forces are on the doorstep of Dabiq, ISIS’ most prized land.
A dramatic development in the fight against the Islamic State is being overshadowed by the capturing of Fallujah by Iran-backed Iraqi forces. While attention is focused on upcoming offensives against Mosul and Raqqa, Syrian rebel forces (including Al-Qaeda) are on the doorstep of Dabiq, the centerpiece of ISIS’ apocalyptic ideology and arguably the most important piece of land to the group.
If you look at the picture below from a Syrian civil war map, you’ll see that there’s a straight shot to the capital of the Islamic State in Raqqa (colored in grey) by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, a coalition of Kurdish, Assyrian Christian and Sunni Arab rebels.
The Western media is fixated on Raqqa as the big prize because we’re still thinking in terms of conventional warfare but, for the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL), the only thing special about Raqqa is that it was a good spot to set up its headquarters. Its loss would be a major contribution towards undercutting ISIS’ claims that Allah is delivering rewarding it with success, but the land itself has no unique ideological value for them.
The ideological linchpin of the ISIS caliphate is Dabiq, a small town in northwestern Syria. The town’s centrality to the ISIS’ ideological legitimacy is apparent in that it is the name of its English-language magazine and every issue references prophecies about it.
Dabiq is where ISIS believes an apocalyptic End Times battle will happen between the “true” Muslims and the enemies of Islam — enemies that include the U.S. and perhaps European forces acting as modern incarnations of the “Roman” invaders foretold in prophecy.
The prophecies involve these “true” Allah-guided jihadists capturing members of the “Roman” army and holding them hostage at Dabiq, which is why ISIS emphasized it was holding American Peter Kassig there.
According to these prophecies, the holding of these prisoners prompts the “Roman” invasion that sparks a sequence of events that ends in the messiah-like Mahdi appearing and the re-incarnated Jesus vindicating Islam by breaking a cross and instituting sharia theocracy.
If you find Dabiq on the map, you’ll see how a hodgepodge of Syrian rebel forces are on the western doorstep of Dabiq right now—and virtually no attention is being given to it. These forces are a combination of Free Syrian Army forces (an umbrella term for various rebel forces); Jabhat al-Nusra (Al-Qaeda’s Syrian wing); Ahrar-al-Sham (another Al-Qaeda-linked group) and others.
To the east of Dabiq are the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, who seem to be about as far away from Dabiq as they are from Raqqa. To the south of Dabiq are the forces of the Assad regime backed by Russia and Iran. Any of these forces could conceivably take Dabiq, but the predominantly Islamist rebels are definitely the closest.
The ideal way for ISIS to lose Dabiq would be for Western forces not to be involved on the ground, lest they reinforce any perception that ISIS is actually fulfilling those prophecies. But, as of right now, it looks like the replacement will be Al-Qaeda directly, Al-Qaeda affiliates and other Islamist extremists.
We have to start asking a serious question before we celebrate the potential fall of Dabiq: What happens if Al-Qaeda and its allies control Dabiq and can claim ownership of those prophecies? Will the ISIS caliphate fall, only for its remnants to merge with a reenergized Al-Qaeda?
Ryan Mauro is ClarionProject.org’s national security analyst, a fellow with Clarion Project and an adjunct professor of homeland security.