Tabqa: All you need to know about its significance in SDF's fight against Islamic State in Syria

US-backed militias said on Monday that they had pushed Islamic State fighters out of the old quarters of Tabqa, a strategically vital town controlling Syria's largest dam, hemming the militants into the remaining modern district along the shore, reported Reuters.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces is the most effective ground force battling Islamic State in Syria and will most likely lead the offensive to capture Raqqa in the near future.

Tabqa is both the name of the town and the dam and capturing both would allow the US-backed SDF to advance on Islamic State's main Syrian stronghold Raqqa. The town is a major part of the Kurdish-Arab assault to cut off the Islamic State group from it's informal capital in Syria.

It sits on a strategic supply route about 55 kilometres (35 miles) west of Raqqa and served as a key Islamic State command base.

The battle taking place in this town is an operation that is part of the Raqqa offensive, dubbed Operation Wrath of Euphrates, of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) against the Islamic State. The goal of the operation is for the SDF to capture the Tabqa Dam, al-Thawrah city, Tabqa Airbase, and the surrounding countryside from Islamic State.

The assault on Tabqa began in late March when SDF forces and their US-led coalition allies were airlifted behind Islamic State lines. A US airlift of artillery and special forces advisers that placed them behind Islamic State lines was a turning point in the Tabqa offensive and underscored the closeness between Washington and the SDF.

The SDF surrounded Tabqa in early April before pushing into the city on 24 April, as part of their flagship offensive for Raqqa further east.

SDF fighter looks toward the northern town of Tabqa, Syria. AP

SDF fighter looks toward the northern town of Tabqa, Syria. AP

That assault was launched in November and has seen SDF fighters capture swathes of countryside around the city.

In recent weeks the SDF has also squeezed Islamic State's pocket of territory around Raqqa, which the jihadist group has used as a base to plot attacks and manage much of its self-declared caliphate since seizing the city in 2014.

The population of the town has dwindled from 250,000 before Syria’s conflict erupted in 2011 to 75,000, according to reports. Apart from this, it also houses jihadists and their families which have come from Arab countries, Europe, Australia and the United States. The Islamic State has important command base in the city and also their main prison.

In 2014, the town witnessed a series of clashes between the Islamic State and the Syrian Arab Army during the Syrian Civil War. Al-Tabqa was the last bastion for Syrian military forces in Raqqa province, which at the end of the battle came fully under the control of the Islamic State.

While the dam has strategic importance for the forces trying to capture Raqqa, the dam is also essential to the economy of the surrounding area. It has specific geographical features which makes it an important asset in the area.

Islamic State still controls the dam.

Geographical features of the dam

Located in Raqqa province, the dam is built on the 2,800-kilometre-long (more than 1,700-mile-long) Euphrates River, which flows from Turkey through northern Syria and east into Iraq.

The dam is 4.5 kilometres (2.8 miles) long, 60 metres (about 200 feet) high and 512 metres (1,680 feet) wide at its base.

Its reservoir, Lake Assad, stretches along 50 kilometres (30 miles) and covers a surface of 630 square kilometres (240 square miles). Its total capacity is 12 billion cubic metres (around 420 billion cubic feet) of water, making it Syria's main reserve.

Soviet help

The Tabqa Dam, also known as the Euphrates Dam, and al-Thawra Dam (Dam of the Revolution), is as important for Syria as the massive Aswan Dam is for Egypt.

Like the latter, it was built with help from the former Soviet Union, a long-time ally of the Syrian regime.

Building began in 1968, and it was inaugurated in July 1973 during the reign of president Hafez al-Assad, father of the current leader Bashar al-Assad.

Vital for the economy

The Euphrates is the main source of water for agriculture and livestock in the region, and the dam has given Raqqa an important role in the Syrian economy.

It was designed to generate 880 megawatts of electricity and provide irrigation for more than 600,000 hectares (1.5 million acres) of land.

But high salt levels in the surrounding land have reduced the amount actually irrigated to less than a third.

Disaster feared

On account of earlier bombings, facilities near the dam have gone out of service. The bombing also causes risk of rising water levels, according to an AFP report.

The UN's humanitarian coordination agency OCHA has warned that damage to the dam "could lead to massive scale flooding across Raqqa and as far away as Deir Ezzor", a province downstream.

Syrian farmers near the Euphrates say they are terrified Islamic State will blow up the dam to defend Raqqa, drowning their tiny villages in the process.

"If this happens, it means most of Raqqa and Deir Ezzor will drown, while other towns die of thirst and crops and livestock die," one told AFP.

With inputs from agencies

Updated Date: May 02, 2017 13:08 PM

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