Raqqa Residents Panic as ISIS Spreads Rumors of Euphrates Dam Collapse

SDF forces
Engineers, journalists and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters run for cover after Islamic State shelled positions held by the SDF at the Tabqa Dam on the Euphrates River, Syria March 29. ISIS told residents of Raqqa that the dam had collapsed, causing panic. Reuters/Rodi Said

The Islamic State militant group's religious police force has caused panic among the residents of Raqqa in recent days by spreading rumors that the nearby Tabqa dam had collapsed, activists say, highlighting the psychological toll the group is taking on those remaining in the eastern Syrian city.

ISIS overran the city in January 2014, later making it the capital of its self-styled caliphate. It remains encircled on three sides as a coalition of Kurdish and Arab fighters, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), prepare for a full-scale offensive of the city.

Battles between ISIS fighters and SDF forces, supported by U.S.-led coalition airpower and U.S. special forces advisers, have been ongoing at the Tabqa dam, which sits on the Euphrates River 15.5 miles west of Raqqa, since a daring raid behind ISIS lines there began last Wednesday. It is one of the coalition's key targets in the battle to liberate the city.

The jihadi group is now using the coalition offensive for control of the dam to spread rumors among Raqqa's civilian population, in what appears to be an attempt to malign enemy forces in the eyes of those living under its rule.

Rami Abdulrahman, the chief of the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), said ISIS fighters told residents Sunday that the Tabqa dam had collapsed.

"Police cars were going around the city, telling them the dam had stopped," he says, adding that they used microphones and loudspeakers to spread the rumor.

The news forced the city's residents to flee to nearby hills. "The people were scared that the dam had stopped. They were scared of the water covering their houses," he says. Activist group Raqqa is Silently Being Slaughtered posted images of residents who had fled to Raqqa's surrounding hills.

#Raqqa photos show Civilians fleeing Raqqa city after #ISIS Rumors of the Dam Collapse #Syria #ISIL pic.twitter.com/fb2OPIvAh3

— الرقة تذبح بصمت (@Raqqa_SL) March 26, 2017

The extremist group proceeded to tell the civilians that the story was not true, forcing them to return. "They are coming back again," says Abdulrahman.

As with thousands of civilians in the besieged northern Iraqi city of Mosul, residents of Raqqa remain trapped between the rule of ISIS, the incoming militias fighting to liberate the city and the airstrikes of the U.S.-led coalition.

The hills of Raqqa served as the backdrop to the group's many hostage beheading videos in 2014 and 2015, where monitors believe captives were taken to be killed.

Read more: As coalition forces besiege Raqqa, ISIS projects image of calm

Coalition fears over damage to the Tabqa dam forced a pause in the SDF advance on Monday, allowing access for engineers to open several of the structure's spillways via the dam's northern entrance. It was a move to ease pressure on the dam's reserves.

The Syrian government's General Authority of Euphrates Dam had earlier blamed U.S. airstrikes for causing damage at the hydroelectric dam and warned of the possibility of catastrophic flooding if the dam broke. Top Russian general, Col. Gen. Sergei Rudskoi, also alleged Tuesday that the coalition was attempting to "completely destroy critical infrastructure in Syria."

But the coalition has denied this, arguing the complex is imperilled by ISIS, not by its airstrikes.

Tabqa dam
A still image taken from a video posted to a social media website by the Islamic State-affiliated Amaq News Agency on March 27 shows an aerial view of the Tabqa dam on the Euphrates river, Syria. Social Media Website via Reuters TV

As Raqqa remains besieged, ISIS has been projecting an image of calm both inside the city and online, refraining from speaking about its defense. But the extremist group is now accelerating its preparations for the battle to hold on to its de-facto capital.

Since Saturday, Abdulrahman says, the group has dispatched 940 fighters from central Raqqa into the surrounding Raqqa province to battle the SDF forces. "They left Raqqa and were sent to go and fight," he says.

The coalition, in an email statement to Newsweek, estimates that there are around 3,000 to 3,5000 ISIS fighters remaining in the city, many of them foreign fighters prepared to defend the city to the last. Abdulrahman says the group is preventing the city's Syrian population from fleeing, but allowing the families of foreign fighters to leave.

As the operation in Mosul has shown, ISIS views civilians as valuable human shields. French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said late last week that the offensive for Raqqa would begin in the "coming days." The toll on civilians caught up in the battle for the eastern Syrian city looks like it will only get worse.