Syrian rebels have captured a major hydroelectric dam on the Euphrates river in the country’s north after days of heavy clashes, carting off boxes of ammunition from defeated regime forces in the latest in a string of opposition strategic advances.
Meanwhile, rebels and pro-government Kurdish gunmen struck a truce to end days of fighting in the town of Ras al-Ayn near the border with Turkey that opposition forces entered earlier this month.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights yesterday said rebel fighters over-ran regime defences and captured the Tishrin Dam, near the town of Manbij, before dawn. Observatory director Rami Abdul-Rahman said: “This is a major blow to the regime,” and described the dam as a “strategic location” on the Euphrates, which flows from Turkey through Syria and into Iraq.
The rebels have scored a series of hard-fought strategic advances recently, perhaps even seizing the momentum in their relentless battle of topple president Bashar al-Assad’s regime. On Sunday, they captured a regime helicopter base outside Damascus before pulling back for fear of government airstrikes.
Amateur videos posted online showed gunmen inside the dam’s operations room as an employee sat in front of five screens speaking by telephone about the level of water behind the dam. Another video showed gunman in front of dozens of green wooden boxes apparently full of munitions.
A gunman opened one of the boxes showing that it contained hand grenades. “The Free Syrian Army has fully liberated the Tishrin Dam,” one of the rebels could be heard saying.
Syria’s conflict started in March 2011 as an uprising against Assad’s regime, but quickly escalated into a civil war that has since killed more than 40,000 people. It has also prompted hundreds of thousands of Syrians to flee to neighbouring Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey.
Syrian warplanes bombed a rebel headquarters near the Turkish border yesterday, missing their target but sending hundreds of Syrians fleeing across the frontier. The attack on the Free Syrian Army base in Atima, one mile from the border, came a day before Turkish and Nato officials were due to start assessing where to station surface-to-air missiles close to the 560 mile frontier.
The Observatory reported air raids on other areas as well, including the northern towns of Maaret al-Numan, Kfar Rouma and Harem.
Kurdish activist Mustafa Osso and the Observatory’s Mr Abdul-Rahman said the town of Ras al-Ayn has been quiet since Saturday after fighters from the government-leaning Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD, reached an agreement on a truce with rebels, most of them from Islamist extremist groups, including the al-Qaeda-inspired Jabhat al-Nusra.
The rebels entered the town earlier this month and have since clashed almost daily with PYD gunmen for control over the area. Both factions add to the complexity of Syria’s conflict, which has taken on heavy sectarian – and ethnic – overtones.
The fighting in recent days has left dozens of people dead or wounded, and dozens captured on both sides.
Mr Osso and Mr Abdul-Rahman said PYD forces and the rebels agreed to exchange prisoners and to withdraw militiamen from the town.
When regime forces withdrew from Kurdish areas in north-eastern Syria in July, they were quickly replaced by Kurdish fighters from PYD.