BEIRUT — Syrian rebels scored one of their biggest strategic victories Monday 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-Qaida-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 captured the dam, saying "heavy clashes are taking place around it." The official spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. But amateur video released by activists showed gunmen walking around the facility's operations rooms and employees apparently carrying on with their work as usual.
In the capital, Damascus, the rebels kept the battle going mostly in northeastern and southern neighborhoods as the fighting gets closer to the heart of President Bashar Assad's seat of power.
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, which at 640 square kilometers (247 square miles) is 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 Assad's ruling Baath party to power.
Early 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 President Hafez Assad, the current president's father.
"This is one of the biggest projects that have a moral value in Syria's history," said Dubai-based Syrian economist Samir Seifan. "It was the Syrian government's biggest project in the 20th century."
Seifan said that the dam is "a very sensitive plant" and it is very important that technicians and experts keep it running as usual because any mistake could have dangerous consequences.
He added that any mistake could "release massive amounts of water that will drown wide areas including the city of Deir el-Zour as well as cities in Iraq." Seifan added that "any damage will have dangerous consequences on civilians. It supplies hundreds of thousands of hectares with water."
An amateur video released by activists showed rebels walking through large operations rooms as employees went on with their work as usual.
"The al-Furat dam is now in the hands of the Free Syrian Army heroes," says the narrator. "And these are the workers, continuing their work as usual."
The video appeared genuine and corresponded to other Associated Press reporting on the events depicted.
Abdul-Rahman, of the Observatory, 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 but will keep their checkpoints around the dam.
The rebels now control three dams on the Euphrates.