At Syria dam, US-backed fighters battle IS jihadists

Tabqa Dam (Syria) (AFP) - The road to the Tabqa dam in northern Syria is strewn with evidence of the clashes being waged by a US-backed alliance of fighters against the Islamic State group.

Bits of burned vehicles and the casings of ammunition litter the roadside leading into the dam complex, which the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) entered Friday.

Two overturned tanks lie in the rubble and dirt berms along the roadside, and the bodies of several alleged IS fighters lie in the shallow water of a canal.

The jihadist group still controls the main dam itself, Syria's largest, which straddles the Euphrates River.

But fighters from the Kurdish-Arab SDF alliance who were airlifted behind IS lines last week by US forces entered the complex from the north on Friday and seized part of it.

The battle for the dam has sparked concern about its integrity, with fears that any damage to it could cause its failure and "catastrophic" flooding.

The facility went out of service over the weekend, a technical source there told AFP, after damage to its power station.

"We tried to preserve the dam as much as possible so that it was not damaged," SDF commander Rojda Felat told AFP.

"We think Daesh has laid explosives on it to prevent our advance," she added, using an Arabic acronym for IS.

- 'Jihad is our path' -

Signs of IS control are everywhere, starting with a placard cautioning that the maximum load allowed on the dam is 50 tonnes, and warning that any additional weight will incur a fine.

Elsewhere, a sign in white Arabic script on a black background reads: "The Quran is our constitution, Mohammed is our leader, and jihad is our path."

The battle for the dam is part of the SDF's preparations for a larger assault on IS's de facto Syrian capital Raqa, which lies around 55 kilometres (34 miles) east of Tabqa.

The alliance, backed by the US-led coalition fighting IS in Iraq and Syria, is aiming to effectively encircle Raqa, and on Sunday captured the nearby Tabqa military airport.

The coalition has launched air strikes in support of the operation, and Felat said its forces were playing a stepped-up role on the ground.

"This time, coalition forces took part in greater force than previous occasions with new tactics like the airlift, crossing the river, and artillery fire," she said.

Inside the part of the complex under SDF control, a concrete bunker near the water's edge bears a crude white rendition of IS's flag, painted on its side.

And from a position on the edge of Lake Assad, created by the dam and Syria's largest water reservoir, positions still held by IS can be seen, with the group's black flag fluttering next to a mosque.

- Fears of flooding -

Since arriving at the complex, the SDF has left their mark too: the letters SDF and YPG are graffitied in English on concrete barrages pockmarked by bullets.

Amid fears for the dam's integrity, the SDF announced Monday it was pausing operations for four hours to allow engineers to enter the facility.

A source at the dam said the team needed more time to carry out inspections and repairs.

"It will take two or three days to assess and repair the damage, which was a result of the bombardment of the electrical distribution room," he told AFP.

"The teams will try to find alternatives to the power station to make the dam functional again," he said.

But an SDF spokeswoman said inspections had been successful and the pause in fighting was now over.

"There is no damage to the dam or its function, the engineers have finished their work and confirmed that the dam has not been damaged, and on this basis the ceasefire ended," said Jihan Sheikh Ahmed in a statement.

Earlier this year, the United Nations raised concern about the prospect of damage to the dam in fighting, warning that water levels -- which put pressure on the structure -- were already high.

It warned damage to the dam could produce "massive scale flooding" in Raqa province and even further east in Deir Ezzor, with "catastrophic humanitarian implications".

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