Syrian rebels have scored one of their biggest strategic victories since the country’s crisis began two years ago, capturing the nation’s largest dam and iconic industrial symbol of the Assad family’s four-decade rule.
Rebels led by the al-Qaeda-linked militant group Jabhat al-Nusra now control much of the water flow in the country’s north and east, eliciting warnings from experts that any mistake in managing the dam may drown wide areas in Syria and Iraq.
A Syrian government official denied that the rebels on Monday captured the dam, saying that “heavy clashes are taking place around it.” The official spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
However, amateur video released by activists showed gunmen walking around the facility’s operations rooms and employees apparently carrying on with their work as usual.
The capture of the al-Furat dam came after rebels seized two smaller dams on the Euphrates River, which flows from Turkey through Syria and into Iraq. Behind al-Furat dam lies Lake Assad, the country’s largest water reservoir.
The dam produces 880 megawatts of electricity, a small amount of the country’s production. Syria’s electricity production relies on plants powered by natural gas and fuel oil.
Still, the capture handed the rebels control over water and electricity supplies for both government-held areas and large swaths of land the opposition has captured over the past 22 months of fighting.
“This is the most important dam in Syria. It is a strategic dam, and Lake Assad is one of the largest artificial lakes in the region,” said Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“It supplies many areas around Syria with electricity,” Abdul-Rahman said, citing the provinces of Raqqa, Hassaka and Aleppo in the north as well as Deir el-Zour in the east near the Iraqi border.
The dam, constructed in the late 1960s in cooperation with the Soviet Union, is located in a northeastern town once called Tabqa. After the dam was built, the town’s name changed to Thawra, Arabic for revolution, to mark the March 8, 1963 coup that brought al-Assad’s ruling Baath party to power.
Early on Monday, when the rebels stormed the dam and the town, one of the first things they did was set ablaze a giant statue of the late Syrian president Hafez al-Assad, the current president’s father.
Abdul-Rahman said the rebels have told their fighters not to interfere with the work of the dam. He added that the gunmen will leave the dam for employees to run.