It was the worst of times, it was the end of times. Dabiq, the northern Syrian town prophesied to be the location of an “apocalyptic battle”, was abandoned with apparent minimal resistance by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) over the weekend.
However, a more serious threat of Armageddon for the nascent ISIL “caliphate” comes in the form of the continued loss of territory this year and the forthcoming battles for Mosul and Raqqa. In the first nine months of this year, ISIL has reportedly lost territory roughly the size of Sri Lanka across Iraq and Syria.
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While the eyes of the world have quite rightly been focused on the horrors of Aleppo, the ISIL decision to declare war on everybody has seen air power grind down their defences, with Turkey-backed rebels able to take Dabiq itself with relative ease.
August marked two years of US-led bombing of ISIL with more than 14,000 strikes on 26,000 targets. Thousands of ISIL fighters have been killed or left the region, hundreds of millions of dollars worth of supplies and assets have been destroyed, and key trade and supply routes have been cut off.
Considering ISIL is fighting a Holy War and considers Dabiq such an important location that it named its glossy monthly magazine after the town, you’d consider the loss quite a blow.
The term “symbolic value” is overused and not adequately explained. In this case, ISIL’s fighting retreat allows for it to keep resources for bigger battles ahead. A useful aspect of using religious interpretation as a source of legitimacy is that ISIL can argue that the Dabiq setback is a “test of faith”.
“The [ISIL] myth of their great battle in Dabiq is finished,” said Ahmed Osman, the head of the Sultan Murad group who were involved in the battle. The British Ministry of Defence recently put out a press release that stated that “myth-making is [ISIL]’s stock-in-trade. And their biggest myth of all is that they are winning militarily”.
Despite all the hard line rhetoric, ISIL are far more pragmatic than they would appear.
However, ISIL propaganda has already cranked into gear, explaining that the recent Dabiq battle is not the future battle to come. Despite all the hardline rhetoric, ISIL are far more pragmatic than they would appear.
Indeed, the first edition of ISIL’s Dabiq magazine was released in July 2014 when the town itself was in the hands of the Syrian opposition. It was only captured and placed under the black flag after a series of battles between August and September 2015.
If the town is a symbolic recruitment tool to be used to attract fighters to ISIL for a future final battle “against the crusaders”, that is still the case as far as the group’s propagandists are concerned.
It’s worth remembering that Syria was a zone of operations that ISIL expanded into, and thus it doesn’t have the same roots as it does in Iraq.
Lessons from Dabiq
In his recent book The Battle for Syria, Christopher Phillips described ISIL as a “non-state foreign actor”, while in The Syrian Jihad, Charles Lister expertly chronicled how Syria became the “centre of the world for jihadist militancy” and how this was a space deeply contested by different groups not simply dominated by ISIL alone.
Another lesson from the Dabiq capture is the efficiency of Turkey-backed forces and the growing role that Ankara is playing on shaping events on the ground inside Syria. Turkey’s “Operation: Euphrates Shield” is apparently creating a de facto safe zone in areas it occupies and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan explained earlier this month: “The problem of terrorism and the refugee problem will be resolved when we secure Syrian soils step by step.”
More important than Dabiq is a debate around how the various anti-ISIL actors expect the conflict to end.
Do they think a lowering of the black flag in Mosul and Raqqa alongside the killing of “Caliph” Baghdadi will do the job?
Until questions as to who in future governs – and with what legitimacy – the ISIL-controlled areas in Syria and Iraq, then the root of the problem is still to be addressed. Meanwhile, could ISIL look to transform again from a caliphate based on facts on the ground to one that is more virtual, more global and arguably more dangerous?
It is always easier to change a reality on the ground than to kill an idea, and while ISIL faces the biggest challenges since its inception, its use of “end of days” as an effective recruitment tool may continue.
James Denselow is a writer on Middle East politics and security issues and a research associate at the Foreign Policy Centre.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.