A Feature, Not a Bug

Near the height of the war against the Islamic State in Syria, a sudden riot of explosions rocked the country’s largest dam, a towering, 18-story structure on the Euphrates River that held back a 25-mile-long reservoir above a valley where hundreds of thousands of people lived.

The Tabqa Dam was a strategic linchpin and the Islamic State controlled it. The explosions on March 26, 2017, knocked dam workers to the ground and everything went dark. Witnesses say one bomb punched down five floors. A fire spread, and crucial equipment failed. The mighty flow of the Euphrates River suddenly had no way through, the reservoir began to rise, and local authorities used loudspeakers to warn people downstream to flee.

The Islamic State, the Syrian government and Russia blamed the United States, but the dam was on the U.S. military’s “no-strike list” of protected civilian sites and the commander of the U.S. offensive at the time, then-Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, said allegations of U.S. involvement were based on “crazy reporting.”

“The Tabqa Dam is not a coalition target,” he declared emphatically two days after the blasts.

In fact, members of a top secret U.S. Special Operations unit called Task Force 9 had struck the dam using some of the largest conventional bombs in the U.S. arsenal, including at least one BLU-109 bunker-buster bomb designed to destroy thick concrete structures, according to two former senior officials. And they had done it despite a military report warning not to bomb the dam, because the damage could cause a flood that might kill tens of thousands of civilians.

Given the dam’s protected status, the decision to strike it would normally have been made high up the chain of command. But the former officials said the task force used a procedural shortcut reserved for emergencies, allowing it to launch the attack without clearance.

Later, three workers who had rushed to the dam to prevent a disaster were killed in a different coalition airstrike, according to dam workers.

The two former officials, who spoke on the condition that they not be named because they were not authorized to discuss the strikes, said some officers overseeing the air war viewed the task force’s actions as reckless.

The two former officials, who spoke on the condition that they not be named because they were not authorized to discuss the strikes, said some officers overseeing the air war viewed the task force’s actions as reckless.

The United States went into the war against the Islamic State in 2014 with targeting rules intended to protect civilians and spare critical infrastructure. Striking a dam, or other key civilian sites on the coalition’s “no-strike list,” required elaborate vetting and the approval of senior leaders.

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The task force’s solution to this problem too often was to set aside the rules intended to protect civilians, current and former military personnel said.

Soon, the task force was justifying the vast majority of its airstrikes using emergency self-defense procedures intended to save troops in life-threatening situations, even when no troops were in danger. That allowed it to quickly hit targets — including no-strike sites — that would have otherwise been off limits.

Rushed strikes on sites like schools, mosques and markets killed crowds of women and children, according to former service members, military documents obtained by The Times and reporting at sites of coalition airstrikes in Syria.

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The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces dismissed reports of serious damage as propaganda. A spokeswoman said the coalition had struck the dam with only “light weapons, so as not to cause damage.”

A short time later, General Townsend denied the dam was a target and said, “When strikes occur on military targets, at or near the dam, we use noncratering munitions to avoid unnecessary damage to the facility.”

No disciplinary action was taken against the task force, the officials said. The secret unit continued to strike targets using the same types of self-defense justifications it had used on the dam.

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