Islamic State fighters ‘fully encircled’ in Tabqa city, Euphrates Dam

AMMAN: The American-backed Syrian Democratic Forces completed their encirclement of Islamic State fighters inside Tabqa city and the nearby Euphrates Dam in Raqqa province on Thursday after capturing a key village, an SDF spokesman told Syria Direct.

“Our forces have encircled the IS terrorists inside Tabqa city and the Euphrates Dam from all four directions,” Mehiar Muhammad, a spokesman for the SDF’s Manbij Military Council told Syria Direct. The SDF fully encircled the area in Syria's northern Raqqa province on Thursday after capturing the village of a-Safsafah, six kilometers east of Tabqa city, after more than 36 hours of fighting.

“A-Safsafah was the last position that IS was using to reinforce itself inside Tabqa,” said Muhammad. Forces within the Manbij Military Council are currently participating in the battles.

The SDF, a multi-ethnic coalition of Syrian forces, of which the Kurdish YPG militia is a main component, has been battling Islamic State forces near Tabqa, 40km up the Euphrates River from Raqqa city, since late March with support from US airstrikes and artillery.

The Tabqa battles are part of the Euphrates Wrath operation to isolate and capture Raqqa city, the capital of the self-styled IS caliphate in Syria.

Until Thursday, the last IS-held road leading out of the Tabqa pocket ran through a-Safsafah, though the route was in firing range of SDF forces in recent days.

Civilians inside Tabqa city told Syria Direct earlier this week that they could not get out, and that food and fuel are in short supply.

“There are few opportunities to leave, and civilians are under the coalition bombs,” one resident told Syria Direct. The US-led coalition has reported multiple airstrikes every day this week in Tabqa.

“The main obstacle is the presence of civilians inside the city,” SDF spokesman Muhammad told Syria Direct on Thursday, asserting that the Islamic State is using civilians as human shields.

“Storming Tabqa is our top priority,” he added.

‘Danger has passed’

As military operations continue near Tabqa, the neighboring Euphrates Dam, the largest such structure in Syria, appears to be holding up despite earlier rumors of its collapse.

The SDF released a video on Wednesday showing water flowing through the main floodgates of the Euphrates Dam, in the portion of it that IS fighters control. The Islamic State controls the southern section of the dam, including its eight main floodgates and hydroelectric station. The SDF controls the northern part of the dam and a spillway channel, al-Baleekh.

 Water flowing through the Euphrates Dam floodgates on April 5. Photo courtesy of SDF.

If the Euphrates Dam’s main floodgates are in fact operational, as they appear to be in the video, “this means that the danger of the rising water level in the lake has passed,” a group of engineers who previously worked at the Euphrates Dam said in an online statement on Wednesday.

In late March, Islamic State-linked media reported the Euphrates Dam was in danger of collapsing due to material destruction and increased water levels. At the time, the floodgates were closed, and IS images appeared to show extensive damage to the dam’s control room.

One week ago, SDF forces north of the dam opened a different set of floodgates to reduce water pressure on the main structure. As a result, water entered the al-Baleekh channel north of the dam, and flooding was subsequently reported in nearby agricultural land and as far downstream as Raqqa city. 

Waleed Khaled a-Noufal

Waleed a-Noufal was born in Ankhel in northern Daraa province. He attended high school in Ankhel but could not continue his study because of security reasons. Waleed worked as an activist in his local city council and the Umayya Media Center. In 2013, he moved to Jordan and finished his high school degree. Waleed wants to bring about a solution to the current crisis through his reporting.

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.