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US Bombed Syria Dam on ‘No-Strike List,’ Risked Killing Thousands of Civilians

Damage to the Tabqa Dam could have caused a flood that would have killed tens of thousands of civilians.

Syrian workers are seen at the Tabqa dam on May 18, 2017.

Syria’s largest dam was supposed to be off-limits during the U.S.-led war against the Islamic State, but nearly five years ago, the Pentagon bombed it anyway, jeopardizing tens of thousands of civilians’ lives, the New York Times reported Thursday.

The Tabqa Dam is a massive, 18-story structure on the Euphrates River that holds back a 25-mile-long reservoir above a valley home to hundreds of thousands of people. It was also “a strategic linchpin” controlled by the Islamic State, the newspaper noted.

On March 26, 2017, a series of explosions battered the dam, knocking workers to the ground and sparking a power outage, fire, and equipment failures. As the reservoir began to rise, local authorities urged people living downstream to flee. The entire dam could have failed, experts say, had one of the bombs not been a dud.

Following the attack, Dave Philipps, Azmat Khan, and Eric Schmitt reported for the Times:

The Islamic State, the Syrian government, and Russia blamed the United States, but the dam was on the U.S. military’s “no-strike list” of protected civilian sites and the commander of the U.S. offensive at the time, then-Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, said allegations of U.S. involvement were based on “crazy reporting.”

“The Tabqa Dam is not a coalition target,” he declared emphatically two days after the blasts.

In fact, members of a top secret U.S. Special Operations unit called Task Force 9 had struck the dam using some of the largest conventional bombs in the U.S. arsenal, including at least one BLU-109 bunker-buster bomb designed to destroy thick concrete structures, according to two former senior officials. And they had done it despite a military report warning not to bomb the dam, because the damage could cause a flood that might kill tens of thousands of civilians.

The revelation of Task Force 9’s role in the assault on the Tabqa Dam follows a pattern described in previous Times’ investigations. As the newspaper noted on Thursday, “The unit routinely circumvented the rigorous airstrike approval process and hit Islamic State targets in Syria in a way that repeatedly put civilians at risk.”

Phillips, Khan, and Schmitt reported:

In response to questions from theTimes, U.S. Central Command, which oversaw the air war in Syria, acknowledged dropping three 2,000-pound bombs, but denied targeting the dam or sidestepping procedures. A spokesman said that the bombs hit only the towers attached to the dam, not the dam itself, and while top leaders had not been notified beforehand, limited strikes on the towers had been preapproved by the command.

“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,” Capt. Bill Urban, the chief spokesman for the command, said in the statement. Noting that the dam did not collapse, he added, “That analysis has proved accurate.”

However, Syrian witnesses interviewed by the Times, and two former U.S. officials who were directly involved in the air war at the time, said the situation was far graver than the Pentagon let on.

According to the newspaper:

Critical equipment lay in ruins and the dam stopped functioning entirely. The reservoir quickly rose 50 feet and nearly spilled over the dam, which engineers said would have been catastrophic. The situation grew so desperate that authorities at dams upstream in Turkey cut water flow into Syria to buy time, and sworn enemies in the yearslong conflict—the Islamic State, the Syrian government, Syrian Defense Forces, and the United States—called a rare emergency cease-fire so civilian engineers could race to avert a disaster.

Engineers who worked at the dam, who did not want to be identified because they feared reprisal, said it was only through quick work, much of it made at gunpoint as opposing forces looked on, that the dam and the people living downstream of it were saved.

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

At least 95,000 civilians have died in Syria as a direct result of the ongoing conflict, according to the Costs of War Project at Brown University.

Journalist Ben Norton argued that “the U.S. military intentionally bombed a dam in Syria that was on its ‘no-strike list’ of protected civilian sites, because it knew it could kill tens of thousands.”

Debunking Pentagon officials’ claims that they target militants with precision, a report released in September by Airwars — a military watchdog that monitors and seeks to reduce civilian harm in violent conflict zones — found that airstrikes conducted by the U.S. killed between 22,000 and 48,000 civilians during the first two decades of the so-called “War on Terror” pursued in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks. Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria were home to 97% of those casualties.

Meanwhile, “no disciplinary action was taken against” Task Force 9, the Times reported Thursday. “The secret unit continued to strike targets using the same types of self-defense justifications it had used on the dam.”

“While the dam was still being repaired, the task force sent a drone over the community next to the dam,” wrote Phillips, Khan, and Schmitt. “As the drone circled, three of the civilian workers who had rushed to save the dam finished their work and piled into a small van and headed back toward their homes.”

“More than a mile away from the dam, the van was hit by a coalition airstrike,” they added. “A mechanical engineer, a technician, and a Syrian Red Crescent worker were killed.”

Although Airwars reported these civilian deaths when they occurred in 2017, they have never been officially acknowledged by the U.S. military.

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