US bombed Syrian dam risking tens of thousands of lives - NYT report

A US airstrike put tens of thousands of civilians at risk, despite the target being on a "no-strike" list.

 A view shows part of Tabqa dam on the Euphrates river, near Raqqa, Syria June 25, 2014. (photo credit: Nour Fourat/Reuters)
A view shows part of Tabqa dam on the Euphrates river, near Raqqa, Syria June 25, 2014.
(photo credit: Nour Fourat/Reuters)

The US bombed a massive dam in Syria during the war against ISIS in 2017, despite the dam being on a "no-strike" list and the risks of such an attack killing tens of thousands of people, the New York Times reported on Thursday.

The Tabqa Dam on the Euphrates River held back a 25-mile-long reservoir and was under the control of the Islamic State at the time. On March 26, 2017, a number of blasts hit the dam, knocking workers to the ground and causing crucial equipment to fail. The river suddenly could not pass through and the reservoir began to rise, sparking evacuations downstream.

While ISIS, the Syrian government and Russia blamed the US, then-Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend called the allegations "crazy reporting" as the site was on the US's "no-strike list" of protected civilian sites.

“The Tabqa Dam is not a coalition target,” said Townsend two days after the strike.

Despite the US's denial, two former senior officials told the New York Times that members of a top secret US Special Operations unit called Task Force 9 hit the dam using some of the largest conventional bombs owned by the US, including at least one BLU-109 bunker-buster bomb.

 Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters and civilians inspect the damage at the northern part of the Tabqa Dam on the Euphrates River, Syria March 28, 2017 (credit: RODI SAID / REUTERS) Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters and civilians inspect the damage at the northern part of the Tabqa Dam on the Euphrates River, Syria March 28, 2017 (credit: RODI SAID / REUTERS)

The attack was conducted despite a military report warning not to bomb the dam as such an attack could cause a flood killing tens of thousands of civilians.

The former officials added that the decision to conduct the strike was made using a procedural shortcut reserved for emergencies, allowing the military to launch the attack without receiving clearance from high up the chain of command.

The former officials spoke on the condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to discuss the strikes. According to the report, some officers viewed the task force's actions as reckless.

The dam strike is part of a pattern the New York Times has seen in Task Force 9's behavior, with the unit routinely circumventing the rigorous approval process usually used for such strikes and hitting ISIS targets in Syria in a manner that repeatedly put civilians at risk.

“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,” Scott F. Murray, a retired Air Force colonel, who planned airstrikes during air campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo, told the New York Times. “Worst case, those munitions could have absolutely caused the dam to fail.”

After the strikes, dam workers found a bunker-buster that had failed to explode five floors deep in the dam's control tower. If it had exploded, the whole dam could have failed.

US Central Command (CENTCOM) acknowledged dropping three 2,000-pound bombs in Syria to the New York Times, but denied targeting the dam or bypassing procedures. A spokesman told the paper that the bombs hit only the towers attached to the dam and not the dam itself, adding that limited strikes on the tower had been preapproved by the command.

Capt. Bill Urban, the chief spokesman for the command, told the New York Times that the fact that the dam did not collapse proved that the analysis that attacking the towers would not cause the dam to fail was correct.

“The mission, and the strikes that enabled it, helped return control of the intact Tabqa Dam to the people of Northeast Syria and prevented ISIS from weaponizing it," added Urban. “Had they been allowed to do so, our assessments at the time predicted that they would have inflicted further suffering on the people of Syria.”

Despite the spokesman's statements, the two former officials and Syrian witnesses interviewed by the New York Times said that the dam stopped functioning entirely, causing the reservoir to quickly rise 50 feet and nearly spill over the dam. Authorities in Turkey cut water flow into Syria to buy time and ISIS, the Syrian government, the Syrian Defense Forces and the US called an emergency ceasefire to allow civilian engineers to work to prevent a catastrophe.

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

A report by specialized engineers in Defense Intelligence Agency’s Defense Resources and Infrastructure office made a clear recommendation not to strike the concrete parts of the dam with any bombs or missiles, saying that small weapons like Hellfire missiles could be used on the earthen sections of the dam.

According to the report, Task Force 9 operators called in a self-defense strike allowing them to bypass standard approval procedures. A military report obtained through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit showed that the operators requested the strikes for "terrain denial," meaning to prevent or delay enemy forces from capturing a specific area. The two former officials said that the terrain denial request suggested that allied forces were not in danger and the strike was intended to preemptively destroy fighting positions.

A senior Defense Department official said that the strikes were conducted with "approved guidance" set by the commander of the campaign against ISIS, meaning that the commander did not need to be informed beforehand.

The official added that a B-52 bomber dropped bombs set to explode in the air above the targets, but when those failed to dislodge enemy fighters, the task force called for three 2,000 pound bombs to be dropped, including at least one bunker-buster. The towers were also hit with heavy artillery.

ISIS fighters fled the dam days later, sabotaging already inoperable turbines as they retreated.

The New York Times pointed out that testimony from former service members, military documents and reporting at the sites of airstrikes showed that rushed strikes by the task force conducted by bypassing approval procedures with emergency rules targeted areas packed with civilians, such as schools, mosques and markets.

In November, the New York Times reported that the US military had covered up 2019 airstrikes by Task Force 9 near Baghuz, Syria that killed up to 64 women and children, a possible war crime, during the battle against ISIS.

In both the strikes in Baghuz and the strikes on the dam, the task force's own military partners were kept in the dark, with the American operations center in Qatar unaware of the strikes. Every US airstrike is supposed to be immediately reported to the operations center.