Turkish-backed fighters were advancing Saturday on the northern Syrian town of Dabiq, which has become a rallying cry for the Islamic State group as the prophesied scene of an end-of-days battle.
"We are now advancing. Where? To Dabiq," Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in televised comments in the Black Sea province of Rize.
Turkey launched an unprecedented operation inside Syria on August 24, helping Syrian rebels to rid its frontier of IS jihadists and Syrian Kurdish militia.
In the operation's early weeks, Jarabulus and Al-Rai became the first two major settlements to be captured from the jihadists.
The Syrian rebels, supported by Turkish planes and tanks, seized a strategic hilly region from IS and were now only about one mile from Dabiq, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
"Two hours ago, the rebels started their attack to control Dabiq. The rebels came from Al-Rai," it said.
Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said the advance was backed by heavy artillery from Turkish-backed forces.
Dabiq holds crucial ideological importance for IS because of a Sunni prophecy that states it will be the site of an end-of-times battle between Christian forces and Muslims.
The town itself has negligible military value compared with the strategic IS-controlled cities of Raqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq.
But among IS supporters on social media, Dabiq has become a byword for a struggle against the West, with Washington and its allies bombing jihadists portrayed as modern-day Crusaders.
"The lions of Islam have raised the banner of the Caliphate in Dabiq," one Tunisian IS supporter on Twitter in 2014, shortly after the jihadists took the town. "Now they await the arrival of the Crusader army."
Earlier this week, IS tried to downplay the advancing rebel forces in its Al-Naba online pamphlet, saying the major battle for the town was yet to come.
Anti-IS fighters and their Turkish backers "have amassed in Aleppo, announcing Dabiq as their major goal," and thinking they could score "a great moral victory against the Islamic State."
But "the great epic of Dabiq will be preceded by great events and apocalyptic omens," the pamphlet, published Thursday, said.
"These hit-and-run battles in Dabiq and its outskirts -- the lesser Dabiq battle -- will end in the greater Dabiq epic," the group added.
Dabiq is also the name of the jihadists' sleek English-language propaganda magazine. Every new edition opens with a quote by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the late leader of IS's precursor, the Islamic State of Iraq.
"The spark has been ignited in Iraq, and its flames will grow until they burn the Crusader armies in Dabiq," he once said.
Copyright (2016) AFP. All rights reserved.