The Islamic State is using the massive Tabqa Dam in Syria as a holding center for “high-value” prisoners and to shelter its senior officials, in the belief that the US will not bomb the site for fear of causing devastating flooding, the Wall Street Journal reported.
The dam is located just 25 miles from Raqqa, IS’s center of operations in Syria, and has been in the group’s hands since 2013. It is heavily guarded by foreign-born fighters and checkpoints, and access is strictly limited, the newspaper said Friday, quoting anti-Islamic State activists in Syria.
The report quotes Middle East expert Prof. Ariel Ahram of Virginia Tech as saying that a rupture in the dam would result in large swathes of Iraq being flooded and “no electricity for all of eastern Syria.” He warned that it would be “an ecological disaster for Iraq and a humanitarian catastrophe for Syria.”
According to sources quoted in the report, the US is aware of the IS presence at the dam, and fears for its maintenance and use as a base of operations. Some Middle East analysts and American officials have expressed concern that the jihadists could blow up the dam should they begin to sense their power slipping.
“Of course you worry,” Mideast and water resources specialist Aaron Wolf of Oregon State University tells the Journal. “These aren’t the people you want controlling basically the arteries of the region.”
This is not the first time that the Islamic State has used dams as safe havens, in the expectation that its enemies will be deterred from attacking it at such facilities, the report says. The group used the Mosul Dam in Iraq for similar purposes, before it was driven out in 2014 by Iraqi and Kurdish troops backed by the US. It also tried to seize the Haditha Dam in western Iraq, so far unsuccessfully, due to the presence of Iraqi troops and Sunni tribes, also backed by US warplanes.
The Journal says, however, the US recognizes that ousting IS from Tabqa would be a more complex task, due to the lack of ground troops in the area.