Islamic State panicked Monday when Syria’s largest dam across the Euphrates River appeared to be in danger of collapse due to fierce fighting in the area of the Tabqa Airbase, some 50 miles from Raqqa, ISIS’ capital.
The leaders of Islamic State first ordered the population of Raqqa to leave the city immediately, but later rescinded the order when the Syrian Democratic Forces said the dam was out of service but not in danger of immediate collapse.
The Jihadist organization accused the U.S.-led coalition of bombing the Tabqa dam, something that was denied by Talal Silo, a spokesman for the SDF.
Silo said there had been no airstrikes on the dam and there was no immediate danger.
“There have been no airstrikes on the dam,” Silo told AFP, adding that the U.S. ferried SDF fighters to the area of the dam in order to avoid shelling or damage to the structure.
Before the offensive to liberate Raqqa started March 22, the United Nations warned that damage to the dam could lead to massive flooding in the Raqqa region and “catastrophic humanitarian implications.”
The dam primarily functions as a hydropower plant and could have been hit by an errant shell, local sources told Kurdish media.
The same sources said technicians could not reach the power station due to the continued fighting and fears ISIS could have booby-trapped the dam.
“Shelling on the area that supplies that dam with electricity has put it out of service,” the sources told AFP.
On Tuesday, Reuters and AFP reported the SDF and the U.S. military decided to halt the offensive against ISIS in Raqqa due to renewed fears the damage done to the dam was more serious than previously assumed by the allies battling Islamic State.
Abdul Jawad al-Sakran, a Syrian engineer who was formerly in charge of the dam, confirmed the control station of the facility was out of service and warned of dire consequences if repairs are not carried out quickly.
In a statement sent to Arab media, al-Sakran and other Syrian technicians who work at the dam called on all sides to avoid military operations in the area of the dam and allow repairs immediately.
“The operations room at the dam has been burned down, contrary to what the SDF has said. It is completely unoperational,” the statement said.
Eliot Higgins a researcher at King’s College in London fired off a twitter message that after watching a video about the situation at the dam was released by Islamic State, he had come to the conclusion that one of the electricity pylons of the dam was damaged.
“The failure of the (power) station could lead to its submersion if the pumps stop working and the water level of the Tabqa lake rises … which could lead to water overflowing from the top of the dam and even lead to its collapse,” al-Sakran said.
The situation at the dam led to rare criticism about the SDF operations by the Russian military in Syria.
Col. Gen. Sergei Rudskoi of the Russian General Staff in Syria accused the SDF and the U.S. of “completely destroying critical infrastructure in Syria” and claimed coalition warplanes had hit the dam during the offensive against ISIS.
Rudskoi warned a collapse of the dam would lead to an “ecological catastrophe” and numerous civilian deaths.
Conflicting messages about the situation at the dam are continuing to come out of Syria, with the SDF claiming its engineers had examined the situation and had not found any damage. Meanwhile, ISIS and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said no technicians had reached the control station of the dam and it is still in danger of immediate collapse.