Since its rapid expansion across Iraq in June, ISIS has scored a number of tactical victories throughout the north and west of the country. These victories have placed a large swath of Iraqi territory within the group’s control while also giving ISIS two crucial pieces of leverage — control over much of Iraq’s food and water supply.
On August 7, after a series of battles with the Kurdish Peshmerga, ISIS succeeded in seizing the crucially important Mosul Dam. This dam, the largest in Iraq, impedes the Tigris River and supplies power to Mosul and the surrounding countryside. By controlling the dam, ISIS is now able to deprive its enemies of electricity while rewarding its allies with power, coercing at least some degree of local support.
More worryingly, ISIS could now destroy the dam if it wanted to. This destruction would wash away Mosul in a matter of hours and send 15-foot high floods to Baghdad within three days.
Fortunately, according to workers at the dam who have spoken to Bloomberg News, ISIS’s one demand is to keep the dam running — for now, at least.
The dam provides ISIS with extensive leverage against the Iraqi government. The control of key pieces of infrastructure also gives further validity to the group’s claim that it constitutes an actual state.
Natasha Underhill, a political scientist at Nottingham Trent University, told Bloomberg that control of the dam “provides the group with leverage against the Iraqi government and shows that they’re a serious threat to the stability of the Iraqi state.”
Aside from the Mosul Dam, ISIS has attempted to gain control of the Haditha Dam south-west of Baghdad, but has so far failed. Control of the Haditha Dam on the Euphrates River would be just as disastrous as control of the Mosul Dam — the Haditha Dam provides nearly a third of Iraq’s electricity.
Alastair Newton, a senior political analyst at the Nomura Group, has written that the current conflict in Iraq hinges on the country’s water supply. The largest risk for Iraq as a whole is if ISIS “can secure control of key water infrastructure.”
A Fight For Food
ISIS’s leverage doesn’t just come from water resources. ISIS now controls large parts of five of Iraq’s most fertile provinces, areas which are responsible for approximately 40% of the country’s wheat crop. The militants have also seized a number of government grain silos throughout the north of the country, which contained somewhere from 40,000 to 50,000 tons of grain.
ISIS has seized an additional 700 tons of wheat from western Iraq. The grain was transported to Syria for milling, before being brought back into Iraq. ISIS then sought to sell the grain to the Iraqi government through third-parties in order to raise further funds.
According to a source at the Agricultural Ministry who spoke to Reuters, ISIS puts upwards of 30% of Iraq’s entire farm production is at risk. This places significant strain of the Iraqi government, as well as Iraqi society as a whole.
“Now is the worst time for food insecurity since the sanctions [during Saddam Hussein’s rule] and things are getting worse,” Fadel El-Zubi, the Iraqi U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation representative, told Reuters.
By controlling the water supply of central and southern Iraq, along with an astounding percentage of the country’s agricultural output, ISIS could place significant pressure on the central government while maintaining a current military status quo that leaves them sitting on a Belgium-sized chunk of the Middle East.