American-backed forces locked in tense battles with the Islamic State near Raqqa’s Euphrates Dam

AMMAN: The United States-backed Syrian Democratic Forces are battling the Islamic State near both a key dam and a military airbase in the north's Raqqa province on Tuesday, SDF commanders told Syria Direct, one day after a brief pause in the fighting to allow engineers to assess the dam's structural integrity.

The Euphrates Dam, located 40km upstream from Raqqa city, is the largest in Syria. The sand and stone structure extends 4km across the Euphrates River, holding back the Lake Assad reservoir.

The dam, as well as nearby Tabqa city and a military airbase, are the current focus of months of battles by a US-backed coalition of Kurdish and Arab forces to drive the Islamic State from Raqqa province, which it captured in 2014.

“We are determined to take the Euphrates Dam,” Shervan Darwish, an SDF commander, told Syria Direct on Tuesday.

Fighting near Tabqa began one week ago when the US-led international coalition airdropped SDF fighters behind IS lines west of the city and the nearby dam. Since then, heavy ground fighting and airstrikes have resulted in SDF gains against IS amid reports of civilian casualties.

The battles paused for a few hours on Monday amidst conflicting reports that the structure of the Euphrates Dam had been damaged by bombardment and was facing a possible collapse.

 SDF fighters near the northern entrance to the Euphrates Dam on Monday. Photo courtesy of Delil Souleiman/AFP.

On Sunday, IS-linked media agency Amaq claimed the dam was “in danger of collapsing at any moment” due to “American strikes and a large increase in the water level.”

The coalition denied the claims of damage and released drone images of the Euphrates Dam later that day. “We do not assess the dam to be in imminent danger unless ISIS plans to destroy it,” a statement posted to Facebook by the Combined Joint Task Force/Operation Inherent Resolve on Sunday read.

The dam had not been structurally damaged, according to the statement, which added that the SDF now controls a spillway north of the dam that could reduce water pressure if it rose to dangerous levels.

However, on Monday afternoon, the SDF’s Euphrates Wrath operations room announced a four-hour pause in the fighting “so that a team of engineers can enter the dam.”

What happened next is not immediately clear.

According to the SDF, engineers entered, inspected the dam and found no damage. However, it is not clear which part of the structure was inspected. The SDF holds a northern section of the 4km-long dam, while IS retains control of the rest, including its hydroelectric power station and the mechanism that controls the structure’s eight floodgates.

On Tuesday, the activist network Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently alleged that Ahmad al-Hussein, the director of the IS-held dam, as well as his assistant, had been “killed during their attempt to enter the dam during the truce time by the SDF” on Monday.

Al-Hussein had appeared in a video posted online by IS-affiliated news agency Amaq on Tuesday reportedly showing damage to the dam. In the video, he stated the dam was “completely out of service” and that its floodgates could not be opened.

Syria Direct could not independently confirm the report.

It does appear that something went wrong during the ceasefire from 1pm to 5pm. SDF spokeswoman Jihan Sheikh Ahmed stated via social media on Monday night that IS forces had attacked during Monday’s ceasefire, “forcing our units to respond and resume operations to liberate the dam.”

Clashes between the SDF and IS continued near the dam on Tuesday.

“Certainly, battles around the dam are sensitive, but we are being extremely cautious,” SDF commander Darwish said on Tuesday, speaking to Syria Direct from Manbij, roughly 80km northeast of the fighting.

“Our goal is to liberate the dam and Tabqa city,” added Darwish. “These are steps towards Raqqa city.”

‘Extensive damage’

Syrian engineers and technicians who worked at the Euphrates Dam and its hydroelectric station prior to the IS takeover are watching the battles near the structure and tracking reported damages with great interest.

Five former dam employees issued a statement via Facebook on Tuesday calling for an “immediate and complete cessation of military operations in the area of the dam, power station and Tabqa city,” as well as an end to coalition airstrikes.

 The Euphrates Dam’s IS-held hydroelectric station on Monday. Photo courtesy of Amaq.

The US-led coalition has reported 21 airstrikes near Tabqa since Saturday.

In the statement, the engineers wrote that—based on their impression of available videos, pictures and activist reports—the body of the Euphrates Dam is in “good condition,” but that it appears the control room in the hydroelectric station had suffered “extensive damage,” indicating that it could go out of service.

The statement went on to say that while it appeared the mechanism controlling the opening and closing of floodgates had also been damaged, that the water level in the lake “is still approximately 1.5 meters below its maximum level.”

Abdel Jawad Sukran, the former director of the Euphrates Dam power station and one of those who authored Tuesday’s statement, told Syria Direct that, after reviewing pictures on social media, he is concerned about the loss of electrical power and mechanical control in the dam.

“Technicians must be allowed constant access to monitor the station and water levels,” he told Syria Direct on Tuesday.

In an interview with Syria Direct this past January, Sukran had warned about a “catastrophe” if the dam came into the line of fire. If the Euphrates Dam were to fail, it would flood settlements downstream that are home to hundreds of thousands of people, including as far away as eastern Deir e-Zor province.

Tabqa airbase

On Sunday, advancing SDF fighters captured the Tabqa military airbase, 4km south of Tabqa city and 8km south of the Euphrates Dam, from the Islamic State after “violent clashes,” the group said.

“The Tabqa airbase is a key position for the liberation of Raqqa city,” Rafi, an SDF commander in the area told Syria Direct on Monday.

 The Euphrates Dam control room on Sunday. Photo courtesy of Amaq.

A drone video taken by the SDF on Monday shows a damaged landing strip in the Tabqa airbase.

On Tuesday, clashes erupted near the airbase between SDF forces and the Islamic State “after an SVBIED [Suicide Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Device] attack by the terrorists north of the Tabqa airport,” the Telegram social media channel of the Euphrates Shield operation reported.

Islamic State fighters captured the Tabqa airbase from the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) in August 2014, during the group’s sweep through wide swathes of Iraq and Syria.

Shortly following the fall of the airbase, IS fighters carried out a mass killing of an estimated 160 SAA officers and soldiers captured there. The captives were stripped, marched through the desert and executed at an inactive archaeological site 5km east of Raqqa city on August 27, Syria Direct reported.

In June 2016, Syrian regime forces aiming to recapture the Tabqa airbase advanced dozens of kilometers towards it from their positions in eastern Hama province before the drive was halted and turned back by IS, Syria Direct reported at the time. 

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.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.