The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) is seizing several facilities across regions of Syria and Iraq that are critical to public health and safety, potentially endangering hundreds of thousands of civilians, according to reports.
The al Qaeda offshoot has engaged in fierce battles in recent days with Kurdish forces after seizing cities and several small oil fields in northern Iraq. About 200,000 people, many of them members of the minority Kurdish Yezidi sect, have been forced to flee the region, the United Nations said.
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There were conflicting reports about whether ISIL had taken control of the Mosul Dam on the Tigris River, Iraq’s largest hydroelectric dam. The dam’s director said Monday that Kurdish forces had so far been able to beat back the assault by the jihadists.
Mosul Dam is a crucial facility for civilians in northern Iraq. The dam not only provides electricity to thousands of residents about 30 miles to the south in Mosul, but it rests on a shaky foundation.
Richard Coffman, a civil engineering professor at the University of Arkansas who has studied the dam, said in an interview that the dam was originally constructed in the 1980s on bedrock that is prone to dissolution. Employees at the dam conduct extensive grouting, or sealing, operations six days a week to prevent water from seeping into the foundation.
However, ISIL could cease the vital grouting operations if it is able to commandeer the facility. The jihadist group could also blow up parts of the dam or deny electricity to districts that resist its rule.
The results of a breach would be devastating, Coffman said. In the worst-case scenario, rapidly flowing water from the dam would compromise about half of Mosul and lead to anywhere from 500,000 to 1 million deaths. The waters would also reach Baghdad.
"If [ISIL discontinues] grouting operations, there’s the potential for catastrophe," he said.
A 2009 report from researchers at Mosul University also said that the failure of the large dam "could lead to tremendous loss of lives and assets."
ISIL has a history of using water as a weapon. The terrorist group reportedly threatened to drown areas surrounding Fallujah or cut off the water supply to the central government and the south after seizing a dam on the Euphrates River earlier this year.
ISIL’s tactics raise grave concerns about the safety of civilians under its control as the group seeks to expand its "caliphate" in large swaths of Syria and Iraq. A report last month from the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) warned that cities and systems in the two countries could "never recover" if ISIL fails to maintain vital institutions.
The terrorist group now operates three dams and two power plants in the Aleppo and Raqqa provinces in northern Syria, the report said. A "lack of technical capability" could create "damaging and unanticipated consequences" at the Tabqa Dam in Raqqa, which also houses one of ISIL’s largest detention facilities.
"ISIS’s use of the dam to ensure electricity in its areas of control has caused water levels in the adjacent Lake Assad to drop precipitously, threatening drinking water supplies for areas of Aleppo and Raqqa provinces," the report said.
Activists and civilians have reportedly protested against ISIL’s harsh rule in Raqqa, which includes the detention of more than 1,000 prisoners and weekly public executions.
In Iraq, the Obama administration has so far been hesitant to provide direct military support to Kurdish forces battling ISIL near the Mosul Dam and surrounding areas. U.S. officials have said they could try to channel assistance through the central government, but Baghdad and the Kurds share deep distrust over an oil sales dispute and the longstanding Kurdish desire for independence.
Michael Rubin, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and a former Pentagon adviser on Iran and Iraq for the George W. Bush administration, said in an email that U.S. officials should be especially concerned if ISIL seizes the Mosul Dam. The failure of the dam "would devastate Mosul" and Baghdad and "destroy agriculture in southern Iraq," he said.
Still, the administration should exercise caution when aiding the Kurds, Rubin said. The Kurdish regional government has reportedly granted access to an elite Iranian military force to defend Shiite shrines in northern Iraq, though one Kurdish official denied the recent report. Iran remains the largest sponsor of terrorism in the region.
"Sometimes, if the threat is real enough, doing the task ourselves is the best option," Rubin said. "Rather than give the Kurds weaponry directly, it might be better to take the Kurds up on their long-standing offer to provide basing rights to American forces. That would protect our interests not only in Iraq, but more broadly serve as a hedge against further Iranian influence."
The State Department has said it is "actively monitoring the situation" in northern Iraq.
"The assault over the past 48 hours on territories along the border of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region and focusing on towns and villages populated by vulnerable minorities, demonstrates once again that this terrorist organization is a dire threat to all Iraqis, the entire region and the international community," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement on Sunday.