The ground is dry and cracked. Tan desert stretches for miles in either direction and the air is saturated with brown dust. The fine sand from nearby dunes stirred up in the hot breeze. This is the Iraqi desert. It is nearly uninhabited, heat and drought having made it hostile to human life. Less than 50 miles from here, in the oasis between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, water was first used as a lethal weapon. 4,500 years ago, the Mesopotamian city-state of Lagesh diverted canals to deprive Umma, its bitter rival, of its life source, foreshadowing the long history of resource violence these twin rivers would come to witness.
The use of water to pressure enemies and coerce populations is therefore nothing new. Since the days of Umma and Lagesh, water, or the control of it, has been utilized as a weapon in nearly every major dispute, including the American Civil War, World War II, and the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict. Most recently however, this liquid gold has emerged as a particularly important resource for the Sunni terrorist organization ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria). Like the Lageshi inhabitants of the same lands 4,500 years ago, ISIS has seen the immense power that comes with control of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in this parched region of the world. In its brutal bid to build an Islamic caliphate over the area of modern Iraq and Syria, water has functioned as one of the principle weapons in ISIS’s arsenal. Control over the twin rivers and their associated infrastructure has been critical to ISIS’s territorial gains thus far and is an integral piece of the group’s future plans.
As illustrated in a recent graphic published in The New York Times, ISIS’s movement through Iraq and Syria has largely followed the paths of the Tigris and Euphrates. The group’s bloody march across Syria and Iraq’s desert landscapes began in Aleppo, Syria, 30 miles from the waters of the Euphrates, in early 2013. After rival rebel groups forced ISIS out of Aleppo, the group took Jarablous to the Northwest, a town just inside Syria’s border with Turkey and on the banks of the Euphrates. From there, ISIS has moved southeast along the Euphrates and her tributaries, terrorizing local populations and taking control of critical hydro-infrastructure. After gaining control of the full length of the Euphrates in Syria, ISIS successfully crossed into Iraq in late May 2014, utilizing Qaim, a border city straddling the river’s banks, as its point of entry. Ironically, it was a lack of water supplied by commanders that forced Iraqi government soldiers in Qaim to flee their posts, allowing the ISIS forces to gain control of the city. Meanwhile in Northeastern Iraq, ISIS fighters began to conquer Euphrates’ twin: The Tigris. On June 10th, ISIS took control of Mosul, and advanced rapidly down the Tigris in the next week towards Baghdad. Though presently stalled in the suburb of Abu Ghraib ISIS has its sights set on the Iraqi capital 20 miles downstream.
Looking at this bleak picture, it certainly appears that ISIS is utilizing the Euphrates and Tigris rivers deliberately in its effort to gain control of the region. However, given the scarcity of water in Iraq and Syria, the majority of villages, cities, and sites of strategic or religious importance are built along the two rivers. It could thus be argued that ISIS’s path of advance, which so perfectly reflects the meander of the region’s two great rivers, stems more from a tracing of settlement patterns than a conscious, architected plan to utilize control of water resources to control local populations. However, in a recent VICE News video, an ISIS fighter voiced the critical importance of control of the Tigris and Euphrates to the group’s control of the region. Not only does following the water give ISIS access to nearly every settlement in Syria and Iraq and to the resource of life itself, but it is also their best form of leverage against Iraqi and Syrian citizenry. The threat of turning off the taps and restricting access makes water a potent weapon of coercion, and ISIS has already proved itself unafraid to use it.
ISIS has made conquest of monumental hydro-infrastructure projects a key goal, deliberately manipulating their control of the Tigris and Euphrates and the local population’s reliance on their waters to brutalize communities. Early on in their advance, ISIS took Syria’s colossal Tabqa dam, which provides electricity to Aleppo, and utilized it to cut off electricity to parts of the city not under their control. In April 2014, after taking the Iraqi town of Fallujah and the associated dam on the Euphrates, ISIS closed the dam’s massive gates, causing water to overflow above, thereby flooding 200 square miles of farmland and villages, destroying homes, and ruining crops. This aggressive manipulation of water both forced the retreat of Iraqi forces gaining ground on ISIS in Fallujah and left thousands of Shiites downstream without water. Continuing the trend, ISIS took Iraq’s largest hydroelectric construction, the structurally unstable Mosul Dam on the Tigris, in early August. Mosul Dam requires regular servicing from hydro-engineers to prevent erosion of the riverbed underneath. Its capture by ISIS thus created the catastrophic potential, whether via premeditation or negligence, for a flood so large as to submerge the city of Mosul and reach the outskirts of Baghdad 280 miles away. While Iraqi forces recaptured the Mosul Dam just two weeks later, similar concerns hang over the Haditha Dam, which ISIS has threatened since early June. If Iraqi forces lose Haditha and Mosul, ISIS would fully control the water sources for 32 million Iraqi citizens. Whether or not ISIS would choose to capitalize on this kind of power, their bid for control of the region’s scarce water resources must be halted.
In 2012, the United States issued a National Intelligence assessment warning that, within the next 10 years, terrorist organizations would increasingly use water as a lethal weapon. Perhaps sooner than the State Department and CIA expected, their prophecy has come true. In coordinating its response to ISIS, it is imperative that the international community recognizes and acts upon ISIS’s conscious and deliberate effort to use the region’s scarce water resources as a weapon of control and brutality. While Iraqi forces’ retaking of the Mosul Dam was a lucky and strategic win, protection of hydro-infrastructure along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers must be an international priority. After all, in the last 4,500 years, water has had a nasty habit of turning deadly in this part of the world.