A secretive US military unit targeted a dam in Syria’s northern Raqqah Province four years ago despite the structure being on the Pentagon’s “no-strike list” of protected civilian sites, a new report says.
Two former US officials told the New York Times on Thursday that Task Force 9 had struck the Tabqa Dam on March 26, 2017, using some of the largest bombs in the US arsenal, including at least one BLU-109 bunker-buster bomb designed to destroy thick concrete structures.
At the time, Syria and Russia as well as the Daesh terrorist group, which controlled the dam, blamed Washington for the strike, but the commander of the US offensive in Syria, then Lieutenant-General Stephen J Townsend, claimed that "the Tabqa Dam is not a coalition target.”
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the former officials said several weeks before the strike specialized engineers in the US Defense Intelligence Agency had warned an aerial assault on the dam could cause a critical malfunction and a devastating flood that could kill tens of thousands of people.
However, they added, in the final week of March 2017, a team of Task Force 9 operators on the ground decided to strike the dam anyway by some of the biggest bombs available without seeking permission from the chain of command.
Meanwhile, a military report obtained through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit shows the operators contacted a B-52 bomber circling high overhead and requested an immediate airstrike on three targets for what they called “terrain denial.”
The two ex-officials said the request suggested that allied militants were not in danger and that the task force’s goal was likely to preemptively destroy fighting positions in the dam’s towers.
"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."
After the attack, three workers, a mechanical engineer, a technician and a Syrian Red Crescent worker, who had rushed to the dam to prevent a disaster, were killed in a different air raid by the US-led coalition purportedly fighting Daesh.
Scott F. Murray, a retired US Air Force colonel, said even with careful planning, hitting a dam with such large bombs would likely have been seen by top leaders as unacceptably dangerous.
“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,” he said. “Worst case, those munitions could have absolutely caused the dam to fail.”
The US and its allies have been bombarding what they call Daesh positions inside Syria since September 2014 without any authorization from the Damascus government or a UN mandate.
The strikes have on many occasions resulted in civilian casualties and failed to fulfill their declared aim of countering terrorism.