Risking thousands, US targeted massive Syria dam it claimed was on ‘no strike’ list

Commander of US offensive insisted at time that dam wasn’t targeted, but Central Command now confirms military dropped 3 2,000 pound bombs on ‘towers attached’

This photo, released on Monday, March 27, 2017 by the official Twitter account of Operation Inherent Resolve, shows the Tabqa Dam, in Raqqa, Syria. (Operation Inherent Resolve via AP)
This photo, released on Monday, March 27, 2017 by the official Twitter account of Operation Inherent Resolve, shows the Tabqa Dam, in Raqqa, Syria. (Operation Inherent Resolve via AP)

A covert United States military unit reportedly targeted a massive dam in Syria controlled by the Islamic State with some of the largest conventional bombs in the army’s arsenal, despite the levee being on a “no-strike list” given that flooding could put the lives of tens of thousands at risk.

The force strike at the Tabqa Dam, on March 6, 2017, threw dam workers to the ground, ripped through five stories of the 18-story structure, caused a massive fire that destroyed essential equipment and led to the deaths of three employees who rushed to the scene and were killed in a subsequent strike by US-led coalition forces, two former US officials told The New York Times in a report published Thursday.

The IS, Russia and Syria all blamed the US for the strike, but the commander of the US offensive in Syria, then-Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend emphatically denied the accusation, saying that “the Tabqa Dam is not a coalition target.”

But the two former US officials told The Times that the strike by the covert unit known as Task Force 9 went ahead anyway, using at least one BLU-109 bunker-buster bomb, which is designed to destroy such concrete structures.

An internal military report had warned striking the dam would cause flooding that could impact the hundreds of thousands of civilians living in the valley below and place the lives of tens of thousands of civilians at risk, the NYT said.

“Using a 2,000-pound bomb against a restricted target like a dam is extremely difficult and should have never been done on the fly… Worst case, those munitions could have absolutely caused the dam to fail,” Scott F. Murray, a retired Air Force colonel who planned airstrikes during air campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo, told The Times.

This still image taken from drone footage posted online on Monday, March 27, 2017 by the Amaq News Agency, a media arm of the Islamic State group, shows the Tabqa Dam, in Raqqa, Syria. (Amaq News Agency via AP)

Dam workers examining the scene well after found a BLU-109 that didn’t go off but that experts say could’ve caused the whole dam to fail.

Task Force 9 used a procedural shortcut allowing it to hit the “no-strike” target by deeming the situation an emergency, the ex-officials said.

Responding to the NYT’s reporting, US Central Command confirmed dropping three 2,000-pound bombs, but denied targeting the dam or employing procedural shortcuts to do so.

“Analysis had confirmed that strikes on the towers attached to the dam were not considered likely to cause structural damage to the Tabqa Dam itself,” Central Command spokesman Capt. Bill Urban told NYT in the statement. Noting that the dam did not collapse, he added, “That analysis has proved accurate.”

But the former officials said that the strike caused significantly more damage than Central Command indicated.

Authorities at connecting dams all the way upstream in Turkey cut their water flow into Syria to buy time, and IS, Syrian forces, rebels from the Syrian Defense Forces and the US agreed to an emergency ceasefire to allow civilians to evacuate, according to NYT.

This undated file image posted by the Raqqa Media Center, in Islamic State-held territory, on Wednesday, August 27, 2014, IS fighters wave the group’s flag from a damaged display of a government fighter jet following the battle for the Tabqa air base, in Raqqa, Syria. (Raqqa Media Center via AP, File)

Engineers who worked at the dam told The Times that a much greater disaster was avoided thanks to the quick work of dam employees at the scene, much of which was under gunpoint of opposition forces who stood by.

“The destruction would have been unimaginable,” a former director at the dam told NYT. “The number of casualties would have exceeded the number of Syrians who have died throughout the war.”

The NYT report came a month after the paper revealed that the US military covered up a covert army cell that repeatedly killed Syrian civilians during the campaign against Islamic State.

The unit — called Talon Anvil — struck convoys, car bombs, command centers, and squads of enemy fighters when it operated between 2014 and 2019, the report said.

Current and former American military and intelligence officials told the newspaper that the covert US army cell repeatedly killed civilians as collateral damage in its operations in Syria.

But Times sources said the cell “circumvented rules imposed to protect noncombatants,” sometimes killing farmers in the middle of their harvest, children on the street, fleeing families, and villagers sheltering in buildings.

A Syrian woman runs for cover following government shelling on the rebel-held besieged town of Ayn Tarma in the eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on March 21, 2018. (AFP Photo/Abdulmonam Eassa)

In November, The Times reported that the US military covered up a series of airstrikes in 2019 that likely killed dozens of Syrian civilians during the campaign against IS.

The strikes in Baghuz, in Syria’s east, targeted a group of women and children huddled by a river, who had been identified as such by Air Force personnel monitoring the area. According to the report, personnel were shocked by the bombings and it was not immediately clear who had ordered them.

Some 80 people were killed in the bombings.

It later became clear that the strikes had been called in by a secretive special forces task force that was conducting ground operations in the area, and which often operated without updating other forces in the area.

In response to The Times’ inquiries on the latest report, several current and former senior Special Operations officers denied any widespread pattern of reckless airstrikes by the strike cell and disregard for limiting civilian casualties.

Capt. Bill Urban, a spokesman for the military’s Central Command, which oversees operations in Syria, declined to comment to the newspaper.

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