Bombing of Syria’s Tabqa dam: US war crime that nearly killed untold thousands

A recent investigation has uncovered the truth about an action for which the imperialists had previously denied responsibility.

Proletarian writers

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The destruction of the Tabqa dam would been an unprecedented humanitarian disaster for the people of Syria, yet western media are strangely silent on the revelations that such an outcome was clearly intended by those who struck it repeatedly with bunker-buster bombs.

Proletarian writers

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In an article that appeared recently in the New York Times under the headline A dam in Syria was on a ‘no-strike’ list. The US bombed it anyway, it is revealed that, on 26 March 2017, US forces killed Syrian civilians and risked the lives of many thousands more by bombing a vital dam over a heavily-populated valley, even though the dam was on its ‘no-strike list’. (21 January 2022)

The Tabqa dam, the largest in Syria, is a massive Soviet-constructed 18-story structure on the Euphrates river. It holds back a 25-mile-long reservoir (Lake Assad), which in turn is perched above a valley where hundreds of thousands of people live.

At the time of the bombing, the dam was controlled by an Isis detachment, but an agreement between the Syrian army and Isis meant that engineering workers from both sides of the river could carry on working (often with guns trained on them) to keep the dam functioning and the civilians in the towns, cities and farms of the valley below safe.

The USA, which had invited itself into Syria to relieve the Syrian people of their oil – or, as the Americans described it, ‘to fight Isis’ – had already stated that the dam would not be a target because of the potentially cataclysmic consequences of failure and flood for the civilian population.

Aiming for maximum civilian deaths

When approached by the New York Times for its investigation, US central command spokesman Captain Bill Urban declared that “limited” strikes on the towers had been preapproved by the command in 2017 – although the Pentagon categorically denied any involvement after the bombing took place.

“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,” Urban blustered.

But two former officials who were directly involved in the air war have revealed that after an assault of air-blast bombing both the dam and the two towers were hit by massive 2,000lb ‘bunker-buster’ bombs. Bunker-busters are specifically designed to destroy large concrete structures – they are not the weapon of choice for someone trying to avoid destroying the dam.

“Satellite imagery from after the attack shows gaping holes in the roofs of both towers, a crater in the concrete of the dam next to the head-gates, and a fire in one of the power station buildings. Less obvious, but more serious, was the damage inside.”

One tower was penetrated to a depth of five floors while another bomb reached three floors down. The third BLU-109 bomb was found – undetonated – at the fifth-floor level. Had that exploded as well, it would very likely have been an unmitigated disaster for Syria and her long-suffering people.

As it was, one engineer who witnessed the whole thing from inside rushed out to get help, having seen that: “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.”

A rare emergency ceasefire was agreed by all parties (even by the US, which was barefacedly denying its involvement in the atrocity) so that civilian engineers could be rushed in to try to avert a disaster.

When that disaster had been averted by the engineers and the water was once again flowing properly, two engineers and a Red Crescent worker climbed into a truck to make their way home. Within a mile of the scene where they had been sweating to save thousands of lives, they were killed by a US drone strike to their truck.

This murder of emergency workers was widely covered in the region but went unreported in western corporate media.

Secret force offers plausible deniability

While Isis, Russia and Syria all blamed the US for the attack on the Tabqa dam, this was repeatedly denied by the Pentagon. But we now know that a top-secret US special operations unit called Task Force 9 was responsible for the bombing – and that it used the largest conventional bombs available in the US arsenal.

Handily for the Pentagon, it would seem that the leaders of Task Force 9 did not ask for clearance before making their decision to attack the dam. Nor have there been any adverse consequences for those who took that decision without any (official) reference to the chain of command.

This is less surprising in light of the information that the task force in question was specifically set up to operate away from the usual ‘operational vetting’ procedures that the US military claims to follow. In theory, this exemption allows the unit to respond rapidly in emergency situations where soldiers’ lives might be at risk. In practice, it allows for war crimes to be perpetrated with plausible deniability.

To recap: the USA had a civilian no-strike list. Somehow Isis knew about this and made use of this vital civilian infrastructure site for military ends. The USA had a ‘rigorous strike vetting procedure’. But it also had a special unit exempt from said vetting procedure, able to call for strikes under the blanket label of ‘self-defence’.

Thus the ‘special unit’ was able to take the call ‘independently’ that ‘getting Isis out of the dam’ was a military emergency that justified ignoring all the rules – and was likewise able ‘independently’ to decide to use the kind of weaponry that could be expected to destroy the dam and kill untold thousands of people, as well as cutting off water supplies for millions more.

In this particular instance, a single dud bomb and the skill of a handful of brave engineers stood between the life and death of tens of thousands of innocent Syrians – a war crime if ever there was one. But you will search in vain across Britain’s ‘partygate’-obsessed corporate media for commentary on the seriousness and significance of the New York Times’s revelation.

This is the true face of imperialism, which cares nothing for the scale of human suffering it unleashes on the innocent in its never-ending quest for maximum profit.