The looming battle for the small Syrian town of Dabiq presents Islamic State commanders with a well-deserved dilemma. Do they retreat from Dabiq's "physical" ruins north of Aleppo or do they fanatically defend the "metaphysical" Dabiq of Muslim tradition in a battle that is a sign of Earth's end times?
Unlike al-Qaida, ISIS controls territory. Control of two cities made the Islamic State a state with staying power: it's Syrian "capital," Raqqa, and the huge Iraqi city of Mosul. Raqqa and Mosul matter. Raqqa has oil. Mosul has people. Both cities give ISIS commanders the economic, political and military leverage to exploit divisions among their Syrian and Iraqi enemies. Defending Raqqa and Mosul makes sense.
Dabiq is a large village. Located between Aleppo and the Turkish border, in peacetime barely 4,000 people called it home. Its physical condition in October 2016 is verifiably wretched -- shell-cratered roads, empty neighborhoods, damaged buildings and bunkers manned by Islamic State fanatics.
For these Islamic State fanatics, however, Dabiq has compelling metaphysical significance.
According to a hadith touted by ISIS commanders, a victory by Islam's best soldiers over Christians at Dabiq is a portent of "the Last Hour." In other words, Muhammad indicated "the end" won't begin until Muslims defeat Christians at Dabiq.
Hadiths are traditional sayings attributed to Muhammad or traditional narratives about the Prophet's life. Hadiths do not have the authority of the Koran but they do inform Islamic law. Muslim scholars evaluate the accuracy and validity of hadiths and opinions differ.
No matter. ISIS doesn't brook differing opinions. When ISIS seized Dabiq, the town became a key recruiting theme. ISIS even named its recruiting magazine "Dabiq." God has given us Dabiq to defend. Come fight for the Islamic State and be there as the Apocalypse begins. It's a fair bet that many of Dabiq's bunkered fanatics were recruited by ISIS propaganda touting victory at Dabiq as a step toward the apocalypse.
In August, Turkish military forces entered northern Syria and quickly drove ISIS from the border town of Jarablus. Turkey's methodical incursion is ongoing and has focused on a region between the Euphrates River to the east and Aleppo to the west. The Turkish army is cooperating with an anti-ISIS Syrian rebel force that has needed training and supplies. The U.S. government backs Turkey's attacks on ISIS but has criticized Turkey for attacking Syrian Kurds.
In late September, a large force of anti-ISIS Syrian rebels began assembling outside Dabiq. European news agencies reported that Turkish army tanks and mechanized infantry have moved into the area.
The Turkish air force is supporting the incursion. Bottom line: ISIS fighters in Dabiq face overwhelming firepower. In the maze of a large city like Mosul lightly armed forces can disperse and hide. Dabiq, however, is small and all but surrounded.
Military common sense argues that Dabiq's ISIS defenders should retreat, avoid decisive combat and live to fight another day.
A wise retreat, however, could deal a huge defeat to ISIS morale.
ISIS commanders didn't just use Dabiq's religious power to attract volunteers. Their interpretation of the hadith was explicit. Dabiq would be the "ultimate battle" between Muslims and Christians. ISIS' control of Dabiq demonstrated that the movement had God's divine sanction.
Turks are Muslims. ISIS commanders could argue they don't face a "Christian" army, but what a technicality. The Turks are allied with what ISIS calls "Christian" European and North American powers. ISIS clerics have also declared Turkish leaders to be Muslim "apostates," which means they are subject to execution. U.S. Special Forces are participating in the Turkish operation, so there are Christians on the battlefield. Some of the Syrian rebels may be Christians.