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US-backed Force Pauses Fighting at Huge Dam in Northern Syria

  • Lou Lorscheider

This still image taken from drone footage posted online, March. 27, 2017 by the Aamaq News Agency, a media arm of the Islamic State group, shows smoke rising near the Tabqa Dam, in Raqqa, Syria.

U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters pressing an offensive against Islamic State extremists in northern Syria have temporarily suspended operations near the country's largest dam to allow experts to conduct safety inspections of the massive structure.

The Tabqa dam is located on the Euphrates river about 40 kilometers upstream from Islamic State's de facto capital, Raqqa. Jihadists have controlled the facility and a nearby airbase since 2014.

The temporary stand down Monday by the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces came a day after retreating jihadists warned on social media that the 4-kilometer-long hydroelectric dam was at risk of collapse from rising waters and recent coalition airstrikes.

The United Nations has warned that such a collapse would likely cause massive flooding in Raqqa and the downstream city of Deir Ezzor, located about 150 kilometers from the Iraq border.

The Kurdish news agency Rudaw quoted local sources as saying the dam was out of service on Sunday after its power station was damaged.

For their part, SDF officials say they believe the dam is structurally sound, while denying that it was hit by airstrikes.

An SDF spokeswoman attached to Raqqa operations, in a statement quoted Monday by Rudaw, accused jihadists of using the dam warning as a means of spreading terror among civilians. Cihan Shekh Ahmed also said the dam continues to provide electricity.

A U.S. coalition statement on Twitter also said it saw "no imminent danger" to the dam.

In related developments, coalition authorities say SDF fighters have gained full control of an airbase near the dam.

The capture of the facility on Sunday came four days after coalition aircraft ferried hundreds of Arab Syrian Kurdish fighters of the SDF behind enemy lines at Tabqa to open a new front in the push toward Raqqa.

The SDF cut the main road out of Raqqa earlier this month, as the largely Syrian Arab militia closed in on the IS stronghold from the west, north and east.

U.S. troops took part in that operation, providing cover fire with artillery and airstrikes. But a coalition spokesman, speaking last week, declined to say whether U.S. advisors were on the ground.

Earlier this month, U.S. officials told Rudaw that many Islamic State fighters have already withdrawn from Raqqa, moving southwestward in the Euphrates River valley toward Deir Ezzor and onward into Iraq.

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