Photographer: DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images

U.S. Air Power Bolsters Syrian Rebels Seeking to Retake Dam

  • U.S. airlifted Arab members fighting against Islamic State
  • Militants used dam west of Raqqa as command and control center

Syrian Democratic Forces backed by U.S. air power have begun a campaign to recapture a strategic dam in Syria from Islamic State militants, according to the Pentagon.

The rebel force has launched a “major operation” to retake the Tabqa dam and a nearby airfield and city from the terrorist group, Defense Department spokesman Eric Pahon said in a phone interview Wednesday. The U.S. provided “airlift support to Syrian Arab coalition members in support of this operation,” Pahon said. 

U.S. Apache helicopters, Marine artillery and special operations advice were provided to support the effort, the U.S.-led Combined Joint Task Force said in a statement, adding that this was part of an accelerating effort to isolate the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa on three sides as a prelude for a drive to capture the city.

“The area is critical to ISIS’s ability to import and harbor foreign fighters, export terror, and is ISIS’s last link to territory west of the Euphrates” River, the task force said, using an acronym for Islamic State. “Over the last four months, the Coalition has conducted more than 300 airstrikes around Tabqa and near Raqqa that have killed hundreds of enemy fighters, destroyed more than 200 fortifications, and more than 50 ISIS vehicles.”

Asked if the U.S. was transporting Kurdish fighters who are also part of the Syrian Democratic Forces, Pahon said the U.S. support is being provided to “Arab portions” of the coalition.

Turkish Tensions

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan considers Kurdish forces helping the U.S.-led coalition to counter Islamic State to be terrorists with links to separatists in Turkey. But the U.S. has considered a force including Kurds to be the most effective to lead the initial push into Raqqa. Pentagon officials have said the U.S. is working through the tensions with Turkey over that prospect.

Colonel Joe Scrocca, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State, said in an email that the coalition conducted an “air movement” of SDF and Syrian Arab coalition partners to liberate the dam, located about 50 kilometers (31 miles) west of Raqqa, supporting “this offensive with air fires.”

Located on the Euphrates River, the Tabqa dam provides 10 percent of Syria’s power as well as playing an important role for the region’s economy and agriculture, Pahon said. Islamic State seized the dam in 2013 and has since held surrounding areas.

The militants used the dam and and its environs to hold high-value hostages, for training and as a command-and-control center. It’s their “last good line” for communications and supply west of Raqqa.

‘Dug-In’ Forces

“This can be considered as part of that overall Raqqa isolation” operation, “but it is significant,” Pahon said. The operation is continuing and “will be for some time” as Islamic State “has dug in there” with defenses, he added.

The Trump administration calls the fight against the group its top priority in the Middle East. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with foreign ministers from the 68-nation coalition combating Islamic State in Washington Wednesday. Tillerson urged members to step up their contributions as the campaign evolves from a military operation to one focused on stabilizing areas freed from the terrorist group.

“I recognize there are many pressing challenges in the Middle East, but defeating ISIS is the United States’s No. 1 goal in the region,” Tillerson said at the start of the two-day meeting. “When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority. We must continue to keep our focus on the most urgent matter at hand.”

— With assistance by Nick Wadhams

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