TABQA DAM, SYRIA/MOSCOW – Clashes raged around a key northern Syrian town on Tuesday after the Islamic State group launched a counter-attack to fend off a U.S.-backed advance near the jihadi stronghold Raqqa.
Backed by air power from the international coalition bombing IS, the Syrian Democratic Forces are laying the groundwork for an assault on the heart of the jihadis’ caliphate.
A key part of the campaign is the battle for the IS-held town of Tabqa on the Euphrates River, as well as the adjacent dam and military airport.
The SDF seized the Tabqa airbase late Sunday and began moving north toward the town itself, but IS fighters began pushing back on Tuesday, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“The fighting is a result of IS launching a counteroffensive to exhaust the Syrian Democratic Forces around the Tabqa military airport,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, who heads the Observatory.
The SDF was working to “consolidate its positions” near the airport ahead of a final push for the town, he said.
IS launched the attack with a car bomb targeting SDF forces stationed near the airport, the alliance’s media arm said.
Fierce clashes broke out but the SDF held back the attack and managed to seize some ammunition and rocket stores from IS, according to pictures published by the SDF.
SDF fighters are also bearing down on the Tabqa Dam after capturing its northern entrance on Friday from IS fighters.
The fight around the structure has been backed by forces from the U.S.-led coalition, with American-made armored vehicles bearing the markings of the U.S. Marine Corps seen moving along a nearby road.
An AFP correspondent at the dam on Tuesday said it was generally quiet around the dam itself, despite the occasional IS-fired mortar that landed in SDF-controlled parts of the riverbank.
Planes could be heard above as SDF forces patrolled the northern entrance of the structure.
On Tuesday, coalition forces could be seen standing near military vehicles less than 2 km (1 mile) from the dam, their mortar rounds casually stacked nearby.
After a brief pause in fighting on Monday to allow technicians to enter the dam complex, SDF fighters resumed their operations around the structure, said spokeswoman Jihan Sheikh Ahmed.
“IS amassed its fighters and attacked our forces in the area, which forced us to respond and resume the operations to liberate the dam,” she said.
Earlier this year, the United Nations raised concern about the prospect of damage to the dam in fighting, warning that water levels — which put pressure on the structure — were already high.
On Tuesday, technicians accompanied by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent could be seen examining the dam to assess whether water levels had risen in recent days.
“The explosions and the clashes are threatening the dam, and we ask for all sides to distance themselves from it,” said Ismail Jassem, an engineer from the SDF-controlled Tishreen Dam in neighboring Aleppo province.
“The water levels are acceptable now. We came to open up one of the gates to relieve the pressure,” he told AFP.
IS has accused the U.S.-led coalition of bringing the dam to near-collapse with its airstrikes, and on Tuesday it said an American air raid killed top technicians at the dam.
“An American strike yesterday targeted the technical team at the Euphrates Dam, which killed the dam director, a technician, and an electrical engineer,” the group said on its Aamaq propaganda channel.
The SDF launched its offensive for Raqqa city in November, seizing around two thirds of the surrounding province, according to the Britain-based Observatory.
At their closest point, the forces are just 8 km (5 miles) from Raqqa city, to the northeast. But they are mostly farther away, between 18 and 29 km from Raqqa.
The Observatory, which relies on a network of sources on the ground in Syria, said IS had deployed around 900 fighters from Raqqa city to various fronts in the wider province.
“Fighting is raging on every front around the city of Raqqa, accompanied by nonstop airstrikes,” Abdel Rahman said.
Syria’s conflict began with protests against President Bashar Assad in 2011 but has turned into a brutal war pitting government forces, jihadis, rebels and Kurds against each other.
U.N.-mediated talks between government and rebel representatives continued Tuesday in Geneva, aimed at bringing an end to the war that has killed 320,000 people.
The lead negotiator for the main opposition High Negotiations Committee, Mohamad Sabra, said in an interview late Monday that there could be “no real and viable political solution without the presence of the Americans.”
A senior Russian general on Tuesday meanwhile accused the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State of targeting Syria’s infrastructure — including Tabqa Dam — in territory held by the Sunni extremist group.
Col. Gen. Sergei Rudskoi of the military’s General Staff said the coalition was trying to “completely destroy critical infrastructure in Syria and complicate postwar reconstruction as much as possible.”
A U.S.-backed Syrian opposition force has insisted it is taking care to preserve vital infrastructure as it steps up military operations in northern Syria ahead of a push on Raqqa, the de facto capital of the IS group’s self-styled caliphate.
Rudskoi further claimed that coalition jets had destroyed four bridges over the Euphrates River in Syria and hit the Tabqa Dam to the west of Raqqa.
The collapse of the dam would cause an “ecological catastrophe” and lead to “numerous” civilian deaths, he said.
On Monday, the U.S.-led coalition reiterated that it is taking every precaution to ensure the integrity of the dam. “To our knowledge, the dam has not been structurally damaged,” it said on its Twitter account.
A spillway north of the structure is under control of the U.S.-backed and Kurdish-led opposition group known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, and can be used to relieve pressure behind the dam, the coalition told The Associated Press in an email on Sunday.
Engineers who used to work at the site have expressed doubt that the spillway could accommodate the water flow but said it will still take at least a month for the lake to reach critical levels if the gates are not opened. IS has warned that the dam’s main gates are out of service, causing water levels to rise.
Pressure on IS has intensified in recent months as the group has suffered a series of battlefield reverses in both Syria and neighboring Iraq.
With SDF forces to the north and west of Raqqa, a push on the city is shaping up to be the next major battle. Last week, U.S. aircraft ferried hundreds of SDF fighters, as well as American artillery and military advisers, behind IS lines.
President Assad’s government has objected to U.S. involvement, saying that American forces are not authorized to be on Syrian soil. For its part, Moscow prefers seeing Syrian government forces leading the assault on Raqqa.
Activist groups said Monday the city itself has been without electricity and municipal water for three to five days.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the cuts are due to the fighting around Tabqa Dam, 40 km (25 miles) west of Raqqa.
Rudskoi said Tuesday that Syrian government forces, with Russian military assistance, are making progress against IS. Russia has been Assad’s main backer and has played a key role in turning the tide of war in his favor.
Syrian forces now control of territory up to 16 km (13 miles) around the historic town of Palmyra, Rudskoi said, adding that they recently seized control of high ground held by IS along a highway connecting Palmyra and the capital, Damascus.
Syrian troops fully recaptured Palmyra earlier this month after a push that saw IS defenses crumble and their fighters flee in the face of artillery fire and intense Russia-backed airstrikes. The Syrian government had seized the town from Islamic State militants last March, only to lose it again 10 months later.
Separately on Tuesday, reports emerged that an agreement has been reached for the surrender and evacuation of four besieged areas in Syria.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the agreement stipulates the evacuation of the rebel-held Damascus suburbs of Madaya and Zabadani, besieged by government forces and Lebanese Hezbollah fighters for the past two years, in return for the evacuation of the northwestern villages of Foua and Kfarya, which have been besieged by insurgents since early 2015.
Some 60,000 people live in the four besieged areas, according to the U.N.
Muhammad Darwish, a doctor from Madaya, confirmed an agreement to evacuate rebels had been struck and that it would likely be implemented a week from now. He said the evacuation was voluntary, and that civilians could stay.
The Washington-based Siege Watch monitoring group said in a series of Tweets that the deal, which would result in massive forced population transfers, was mediated by Iran and signed in Qatar.
Such deals have become common in Syria, where rebels surrender following years of siege and bombardment, and are allowed safe passage to opposition-held areas further north in return.
The Syrian government has rejected allegations that such deals amount to the forced displacement of civilians.