ISIS May Now Control Iraq’s Biggest Dam. That’s Really Scary.

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Aug. 4 2014 11:10 AM

ISIS Advances on Two Fronts

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ISIS's biggest prize yet?

Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/GettyImages

ISIS made some major advances in Iraq over the weekend, seizing three northwestern Iraqi towns that were under control of Kurdish forces and possibly taking over the country’s largest hydroelectric dam. (There are conflicting reports over who controls the dam at the moment.)

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

If the Mosul Dam has indeed been taken, it’s a major security risk. As the New York Times notes, a Pentagon report from seven years ago warned that “a failure at the dam could send a 65-foot wave across parts of northern Iraq.”

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For a while, it appeared as if ISIS’ advance into Iraq might actually work to the advantage of those looking to establish an independent Kurdish state. But the weekend marks the first time Kurdish forces have lost territory to ISIS, forcing thousands to flee the area, many of them members of the Yazidi sect. There are already reports of mass executions of non-Sunnis in the towns.

Kurdish forces are reportedly planning a counterattack, and in one potentially major development, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has offered to provide air support to the Kurdish forces looking to retake the towns. It seems unlikely that ISIS could be routed from Iraq without coordination between Kurdish and Iraqi government forces, and this new threat could push them together.  

Meanwhile, hundreds of miles away, the Lebanese army is fighting to retake a border town infiltrated by militants identified as members of ISIS and the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front. Lebanon has faced spillover violence from Syria for a while now, but as Reuters notes, this is “the first major incursion” by Syria’s Sunni militants into Lebanon. The area around Arsal, the town where the fighting is taking place, is already home to more than 100,000 Syrian refugees.

A few weeks ago, it seemed unlikely that ISIS could hold out for that long given the sheer number of regional actors it had picked fights with. But it seems like it’s not only holding out, it’s expanding its activities into new areas and taking on new rivals. It’s hard to imagine how it will be contained unless the various forces fighting it can somehow find a way to coordinate.  

For now, the center of the conflict seems to be the Mosul Dam. Will the prospect of power cuts or catastrophic flooding be enough to get Maliki's government to work with his Kurdish rivals? 

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

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