Flooding reported in Raqqa city as US-backed forces fight for Euphrates Dam

AMMAN: At least one district of Islamic State-held Raqqa city is reportedly flooded on Monday, activists and residents say, five days after US-backed forces opened a spillway to take pressure off of a contested dam upstream on the Euphrates River.

When water began flowing through the streets of Raqqa’s a-Roumaniyeh district, residents panicked and left the neighborhood, Hussein, a correspondent for Syrian news page Sound and Picture inside Raqqa city told Syria Direct on Monday.

“People can only get their information from the Islamic State,” he said, “and they don’t trust that. They are living in terror of a catastrophe happening that they don’t know about.” Hussein denied RBSS reports that IS members had instructed residents of the neighborhood to leave.

Since March 22, the United States-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have been battling the Islamic State near the city of Tabqa, which lies 40km up the Euphrates River from Raqqa city. SDF fighters backed by US warplanes and artillery have, as of Monday, reportedly captured a 164-kilometer area from IS, including a military airbase.

The SDF advance slowed late last week near the Euphrates Dam, the largest such structure in Syria, amid fears that it could collapse due to damage and increased water pressure, Syria Direct reported at the time.

Late last week, engineers working with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) opened the gates of a spillway north of the body of the dam to release water pressure. Since then, river water has been pouring into the spillway, called the al-Baleekh channel, and has reportedly flooded nearby farmland.

Five days since the al-Baleekh channel was opened, one district of Raqqa city, many kilometers downstream, has flooded, Hussein said.

“The irrigation channels that branch off the al-Baleekh channel are not equipped for that amount of water, which caused the flooding,” he claimed. Increased rainfall in recent days and a broken-down sewer system in the city could also have contributed, the journalist said.


 Reported flooding in Raqqa city on Sunday. Photo courtesy of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently.

Syria Direct could not confirm the source of the flooding, which the grassroots media campaign Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently originally reported on Sunday.

However, a group of engineers who previously worked at the Euphrates Dam had warned of possible flooding after the SDF opened the northern spillway last week. In a statement posted on Facebook, the engineers said that water from the al-Baleekh channel could “flood land and areas near the channel” and cause material and environmental damage.

The engineers have not commented on reported flooding in Raqqa city, or whether it could be caused by the spillway.

‘Under siege’

As battles continue between US-backed forces and IS near Tabqa and the nearby Euphrates Dam, civilians and fighters alike are increasingly encircled in the city.

Last Wednesday, the SDF cut the main road leading from Tabqa to Raqqa city, the provincial capital and the Syrian center of IS’s self-declared caliphate. Since then, the Islamic State has launched a series of unsuccessful attempts to reopen the route.

Civilians in Tabqa city can now take only one land route to flee the battles and coalition airstrikes, residents told Syria Direct. A small, perilous road runs eastward from Tabqa city to the village of a-Safsafah, seven kilometers to the east.

“Driving that road is difficult and dangerous,” Muhab Nasser, a citizen journalist currently in IS-held Tabqa city told Syria Direct via Facebook. “The coalition targets any vehicle that it finds suspicious,” he said. Another resident gave a similar account.  

The families of IS fighters in Tabqa and many civilian residents had been able to leave the city before the road leading to Raqqa was cut, sources on the ground told Syria Direct, but for those civilians who remain, the situation is increasingly dire.

In the past week, US-led coalition aircraft have carried out at least 51 strikes near Raqqa city and Tabqa. Civilian casualties have been reported in both areas in recent days.

On Monday, SDF fighters battled IS near a-Safsafah in a bid to close the last remaining land route and fully encircle Tabqa city.

“There is real fear among the remaining civilians,” Muhab Nasser, the citizen journalist in Tabqa told Syria Direct. With no clear route for IS to withdraw from Tabqa, he and others are worried of the “complete destruction” of the city to eliminate their presence.

Nasser and another Tabqa resident told Syria Direct late last week that roads leading to SDF-held territories were not a safe option for anyone wishing to flee.

“Civilians are under siege,” Muhammad, a 30-year-old father of two who is currently in Tabqa told Syria Direct. “Food is scarce, and people are afraid it could run out.”

“There are few opportunities to leave, and civilians are under the coalition bombs,” said Muhammad.

For at least some in Tabqa, advancing ground forces are not seen as liberators, but rather the latest in a series of threats. 

"What the SDF and the coalition care about is taking control of as much as possible, even at the cost of civilian lives,” said Muhammad. “The SDF, IS, the coalition, none of them cares about us.”

“We are calling on everyone to open safe corridors for the civilians to leave the city,” said citizen journalist Nasser, “and to not target the residential neighborhoods.”

Noura Hourani

Noura Hourani studied English Literature at Tishreen University and previously worked as a private English tutor. She left Syria at the beginning of the conflict.

Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim

Mohammad is from Amouda in Hasakah province. He moved 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.

Reham Toujan

Reham is originally from Outer Damascus. She moved to Jordan because of the war. She joined Syria direct because she wants to write about human rights.

Huda Abdulrahman

Huda worked as a teacher in Latakia before fleeing Syria in 2012. She volunteered briefly at a hospital in Turkey before moving to Jordan. Huda joined Syria Direct to spread the truth about what is happening in Syria.

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.