Civilians in rural Raqqa province are trapped along a deadly new frontline in recent days as US-backed forces, supported by international anti-Islamic State coalition airstrikes, advance on a Euphrates River dam just 40km west of Raqqa city.
The airstrikes and ground offensive were launched Wednesday “to liberate the Tabqa Dam in Syria from ISIS,” according to an official statement released by the US-led international coalition, which is backing the majority Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in a campaign to seize Islamic State territory in northeastern Syria.
“Seizing Tabqa Dam will isolate Raqqa from three sides and give the SDF the strategic advantage and launching point needed for the liberation of the city,” the statement said.
But for residents of Tabqa, a city of around 80,000 people just south of the dam, the onslaught poses a major threat to their lives, as their homes, schools and even a bakery come under fire from the air.
This week, US-led coalition airstrikes have killed dozens of civilians in Tabqa and nearby towns and villages, as part of a months-long campaign to advance toward Raqqa city. An airstrike Monday night reportedly killed at least 33 displaced people taking shelter in a school building located in a nearby town.
Tabqa on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently.
"It is very difficult for people to move around inside the city and its countryside because of the warplanes," Abu Juwwad, a Tabqa resident and 40-year-old father of three, tells Syria Direct reporter Noura al-Hourani. A local monitoring group reported airstrikes targeting Tabqa throughout the day on Thursday.
At least 37 civilians have been killed in and around Tabqa over past 24 hours alone, Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, a local human rights monitor, posted online late Wednesday night.
Q: Are there any fears that the Tabqa Dam will be targeted? If it is hit, what is the likely result?
The coalition is targeting the area surrounding the Tabqa Dam on a daily basis.
It is true that they have not hit the structure of the dam directly, but they targeted the area around it, which could alter the structure of the earth in the area. This is making us fear that the dam will collapse.
If this happens, the result could be catastrophic for Tabqa city, Raqqa, Deir a-Zor, and even Iraq. The dam holds an incredible amount of water behind it. If it erupts, it will be a humanitarian catastrophe that nobody will be able to handle.
[Ed.: Tabqa Dam’s former head engineer, Abdullah Juwwad Sukran, warned Syria Direct in the past that clashes near the dam risk targeting the structure, unleashing a flood of “historic proportions” downriver in Raqqa and Deir a-Zor, and submerging thousands of acres of farmland.]
SDF fighters in Tabqa on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Operation Inherent Resolve.
Q: Why are people not fleeing to areas under SDF control? Have you tried to leave with your family? Describe the situation on the ground right now in Tabqa.
It is very difficult to seek refuge in areas under the control of the SDF because they request a sponsor, which is complicated.
Of course, people are afraid of the SDF advances and that they will seize control, because they have seen how the SDF is dealing with the areas they are capturing; they arrested civilians in those areas and accused them of being members of the Islamic State. There are many areas that the SDF seized where they promised that the residents could return, but they have not allowed them.
[Ed.: For their part, the SDF are working to “release Tabqa Dam from the hands of terrorists” and “requested that residents of Tabqa and its countryside stay away from places with high concentrations of terrorists, in order to preserve their safety,” according to an official statement on Thursday. “We call on the people of Tabqa to imitate their peers in the liberated areas of the province, and to join the ranks of our army.”]
Some of the families have not fled because they don’t have enough money—leaving became very expensive, and one tent costs as much as SP350,000 ($1,600). Some of them have been displaced more than one time, from one area to another. Where else can they go?
It is very difficult for people to move around inside the city and its countryside because of the warplanes and the constant bombings. The warplanes have started to scatter pamphlets a number of times ordering civilians not to leave their homes. Despite this, the bombings have hit civilians inside their homes, and the humanitarian situation is very bad.
There are no clinics or hospitals to treat the wounded and most of the injured are just steps away from death.