BEIRUT/london -  Syrian rebels dealt a major symbolic blow to the Islamic State group on Sunday by capturing the town of Dabiq where the jihadists had promised an apocalyptic battle.

The Turkish-backed opposition forces seized control of Dabiq and several nearby towns, in the latest in a series of territorial losses suffered by IS in Syria and Iraq. The defeat for IS came as US Secretary of State John Kerry was to meet European allies in London as part of a new diplomatic push to end Syria’s conflict, which has left more than 300,000 people dead since 2011.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Turkish state media and a rebel faction said opposition fighters backed by Turkish warplanes and artillery seized control of Dabiq.

The town, in Syria’s northern province of Aleppo, is of little strategic value. But Dabiq holds crucial ideological importance for IS and its followers because of a Sunni prophecy that states it will be the site of an end-of-times battle between Christian forces and Muslims.

The Observatory, a Britain-based monitoring group, said rebel forces “captured Dabiq after IS members withdrew from the area”.The Fastaqim Union, an Ankara-backed rebel faction involved in the battle, said Dabiq had fallen “after fierce clashes”.

Fastaqim said rebels then went on to seize several nearby towns, including Sawran, Ihtimaylat, and Salihiyah. Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency also said the rebels captured Dabiq and Sawran and were working to dismantle explosives laid by retreating IS fighters. It said nine rebels were killed and 28 wounded during clashes on Saturday.

Dabiq has become a byword among IS supporters for a struggle against the West, with Washington and its allies bombing jihadists portrayed as modern-day Crusaders.

But earlier this week, IS downplayed the importance of the rebel advance on the town.

“These hit-and-run battles in Dabiq and its outskirts - the lesser Dabiq battle - will end in the greater Dabiq epic,” the group said in a pamphlet published online Thursday.

IS, which seized control of large parts of Syria and Iraq in mid-2014 and declared an Islamic “caliphate”, has been dealt a series of military defeats this year and is bracing for an assault on its key Iraqi stronghold Mosul.

Turkey launched an unprecedented operation inside Syria on August 24, helping Syrian rebels to rid its frontier of IS jihadists and Syrian Kurdish militia.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Saturday said Turkey would push further south to create a 5,000-square-kilometre (1,900 square-mile) safe zone in Syria.

The border area has become deeply unstable, and on Sunday three Turkish police officers were killed when suspected IS suicide bombers blew themselves up during a raid on their sleeper cell in the southeastern city of Gaziantep.

Fighting continued meanwhile in the city of Aleppo, where government troops have been waging a fierce Russian-backed offensive on rebels in the eastern quarters. Clashes took place in Aleppo’s northern and southern outskirts on Sunday, as well as in the city centre, according to the Observatory.

AFP’s correspondent in Aleppo said there had been nearly non-stop air raids on the opposition-held half of the city since midnight.

The Observatory said at least four people were killed in raids on the city’s east on Sunday.

Rebel fire on government-controlled districts meanwhile left three people dead and more than two dozen wounded according to state news agency SANA.

Fighting has surged in Aleppo following the collapse last month of a ceasefire brokered by the United States and Russia, raising deep international concern.

Meanwhile, The United States and Britain warned on Sunday that Western allies were considering imposing sanctions against economic targets in Syria and Russia over the siege of Aleppo.

US Secretary of State John Kerry branded the bombardment of civilians in the Syrian battleground city as "crimes against humanity" and British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson urged Moscow to show mercy.

"There are a lot of measures that we're proposing including extra measures on the regime and their supporters," Johnson said, standing alongside Kerry after talks in London.  "These things will eventually come to bite the perpetrators of these crimes, and they should think about it now," he warned.

Kerry, meanwhile, warned that US President Barack Obama had not taken any option off the table in terms of tackling Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad's assault on his own people.

He too raised the idea of sanctions but he played down the possibility of military action and insisted that it was his and Johnson's duty to "exhaust" all diplomatic options.

"We are discussing every mechanism available to us but I haven't seen a big appetite from anyone in Europe to go to war," Kerry said after talks with French and German officials.

"I don't see the parliaments of European countries ready to decare war," he said.

"Let me make it clear," added Kerry. "We are considering additional sanctions and we are also, let me make it clear, President Obama has not taken any option off the table."

 

Kerry flew to London on Sunday to brief Washington’s European allies after “brainstorming” talks in Lausanne with the main players in Syria’s conflict.

The Swiss meeting on Saturday included key rebel backers Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, as well as regime supporters Iran and Russia.

But it did not produce a concrete plan to restore the truce that collapsed amid bitter recriminations between Washington and Moscow.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Sunday said his country was “always ready to talk with everyone” on ways to end the conflict, and took a jab at France who he said was “not so involved” in peace efforts.

Putin had accused France of pushing for a UN proposal on Syria knowing Russia would veto it.

Kerry is expected to meet on Sunday with his counterparts from Britain and France, but hopes for a breakthrough have been dim.

British foreign minister Boris Johnson is expected to propose “no-bombing zones” for Syria - including Aleppo - during the meeting, the Sunday Times reported.

Quoting a source close to Johnson, the report said he would seek backing from Washington and others for a proposal to threaten strikes on Syrian military sites in retaliation for bombings of certain areas or facilities such as hospitals.