‘If the Euphrates River rises any more, it will submerge huge swathes of agricultural land’: Islamic State opens turbines of Syria’s largest dam

AMMAN: Agricultural land in Syria’s eastern Deir e-Zor province was flooded on Monday after the Islamic State (IS) opened three turbines of Syria’s largest dam the day before, raising water levels of the nearby Euphrates River to their highest level in over 20 years.

The Islamic State opened the turbines on Sunday in an apparent scare tactic to deter the Syrian Democratic Forces and US-led coalition from shelling or conducting airstrikes on IS positions close to the dam by previewing the damage it could inflict on residents living along the river if the dam burst.

In the past 24 hours, the Euphrates River’s water levels rose by an estimated 10 meters as a result, flooding riverside areas downstream. The eastern Deir e-Zor countryside, currently under IS control, was one region impacted by rising water.

 Euphrates River in eastern Deir e-Zor province. Photo courtesy of Omar Abu Laila, Deir Ezzor 24.

“Our fears are starting to become a reality,” Omar Abu Laila, the executive director of news agency Deir Ezzor 24, told Syria Direct on Monday. “If the river rises any more, it will submerge huge swathes of agricultural land along the river.”

The opening of the turbines of the IS-held Tabqa Dam in Raqqa province comes as the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces advance towards the structure, also known as the Euphrates Dam. The advance is part of a military campaign to seize control of Raqqa city, IS’s self-proclaimed capital, 40 kilometers to the east.

IS forces seized control of the Tabqa Dam from Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters in 2013.

In addition to flooding agricultural areas, the opening of the dam’s turbines has limited the mobility of residents in eastern Deir e-Zor province.

 Agricultural lands in eastern Deir e-Zor province flood. Photo courtesy of Omar Abu Laila, Deir Ezzor 24.

“The river barges, which transfer residents and vehicles between the eastern and western banks of the Euphrates, have halted,” says Abu Laila.

In the eastern Deir e-Zor countryside, 13 IS-controlled towns fall along the Euphrates River, seven on the eastern riverbank and six on the western side.

Deir e-Zor residents and merchants have relied on river barges since late September 2016, when the US-led coalition struck and destroyed two main bridges connecting the western and eastern bank of the Euphrates River, Syria Direct reported at the time.

Residents in the eastern Deir e-Zor countryside are using small rafts to transport individuals, said Abu Laila. However, commercial vessels and cross-river trade have ground to halt, he added. 

Abdullah Juwad Sukran, former lead engineer of the dam, expressed concerns about the outbreak of battles between IS and the Syrian Democratic Forces near the Tabqa Dam in a statement to pro-opposition news outlet The New Arab on Sunday, noting that flood season is approaching.

“If the dam sustained damage,” said Sukran, the resulting floods along the Euphrates River “would be a catastrophe.”

Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim

Mohammad is from Amouda in Hasakah province. He mvoed to Jordan in 2004. Mohammad started work with the Syrian Revolution LCC in Amman by doing reporting and coordinating protests. After that he did volunteer work for refugees in Amman.

Tariq Adely

Tariq Adely graduated from Brown University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in comparative literature and translation. He continued his studies at the Qasid Institute and the Institute for Critical Thought in Amman, Jordan.