Battle against ISIL resumes in Syria after checks on safety of Tabqa dam
Beirut // US-backed Syrian forces on Monday resumed their battle take the key town of Tabqa from ISIL after a pause in fighting to assess the safety of a nearby dam across the Euphrates river.
“We permitted a team of engineers to enter the dam to verify the process of its operations. They checked it fully. And there is no malfunction or damage to the dam or its operations as was rumoured,” a spokeswoman for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said.
There have been fears about the integrity of the dam after fighting in the area forced it out of service on Sunday. This followed earlier UN warnings that a collapse “could lead to massive-scale flooding across Raqqa and as far away as Deir Ezzor” province downstream with “catastrophic humanitarian implications”.
ISIL also issued warnings through its propaganda agency Amaq on Sunday that the dam, which is under its control, was “threatened with collapse at any moment because of American strikes and a large rise in water levels”.
The US-led coalition against ISIL denied the dam’s structure had been damaged and said it was “taking every precaution” to ensure its integrity.
“We do not assess the dam to be in imminent danger unless ISIL plans to destroy it,” coalition spokesman Col Joseph Scrocca said.
“The SDF are in control of a spillway north of the dam that provides water to an irrigation reclamation canal which can be used to alleviate pressure on the dam if need be.”
The SDF, backed by air support and military advisers from the coalition, is fighting to seize the town of Tabqa and the adjacent dam as part of their battle for the extremists’ stronghold of Raqqa city.
The alliance of Syrian Kurdish and Arab fighters seized Tabqa airbase from ISIL late on Sunday and on Monday was fighting north of the airport to reinforce its positions, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based opposition monitoring group.
“The SDF could bring supplies to the airport in the coming days and use it as a launching point for additional military operations,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Observatory. He reported heavy strikes in the area.
SDF spokesman Talal Sello said the alliance would “begin rehabilitating the airport after clearing out explosive devices” left behind by ISIL and said the base’s main landing strip was seriously damaged.
The SDF launched its offensive for Raqqa in November and has seizing around two thirds of the surrounding province, according to the Observatory.
At their closest point, they are just eight kilometres from the city, to the north-east.
But they are mostly further away, between 18 and 29 kilometres from Raqa.
Syria’s conflict began with protests against president Bashar Al Assad in 2011 but has since morphed into a brutal war pitting government forces, extremist groups, rebels and Kurds against each other.
In addition to the US-led coalition’s bombing campaign against ISIL, Russian warplanes are carrying out air strikes in support of Mr Al Assad’s government.
Russia’s air support has helped Syrian government forces regain the upper hand in swathes of territory across the country.
Mr Al Assad’s government has also relied on “reconciliation” deals, under which rebels agree to quit territory in exchange for an end to siege or bombardment, and safe passage.
On Monday, evacuations from the last opposition-held district of the central city of Homs resumed under a similar deal, according to state news agency Sana.
It said about 290 people, including 70 rebels, had quit Waer on Monday and that a total of 1,500 were expected to leave by the end of the day.
Meanwhile, UN-mediated talks between government and rebel representatives continued in Geneva, aimed at bringing an end to the war that has killed 320,000 people.
The UN’s Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura was in Jordan on Monday to brief an Arab League meeting on the talks ahead of the group’s summit meeting on Wednesday.
* Agence France-Presse and Reuters