Islamic State – The Mosul Dam conflict is merely one battle in a much larger war

Islamic State – The Mosul Dam conflict is merely one battle in a much larger war

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Courtesy of OpenStreetMap

In a war, there are many things that can help you get a victory. Those things can include gaining control of utilities, transport, and communications. The group of many names – currently called Islamic State (IS) – have used this idea and (in the past) taken control of such facilities as a refinery at Baiji.

The latest action was the takeover of the Mosul Dam (also known as the Chambarakat Dam or Saddam Dam). It is one of the biggest facilities in the middle east. This happened on August 7th. Continued control would obviously mean the interruption of energy supplies to the region and the restricted permission of key services. Obviously conceding defeat and submitting to the will of IS would be the only way out of this, as far as IS is concerned. Needless to say, the Iraqi government (including the outgoing Nouri al-Maliki) and any of the forces involved in the toppling of Saddam Hussein would agree to this.

As most of you will know, the United States was one of those ‘forces’. On August 15th, President Obama ordered air strikes directed at a number of key targets – including IS arms, vehicles, etc helping them to control the Dam. Obama’s letter to Congress included the following:

“These military operations will be limited in their scope and duration as necessary to support the Iraqi forces in their efforts to retake and establish control of this critical infrastructure site”

There were two waves of strikes, which destroyed two checkpoints, an anti aircraft gun, an IED emplacement and 22 vehicles (a mix of armed vehicles and humvees and personnel carriers). The two waves had 14 separate strikes and none of the aircraft involved were damaged, destroyed or captured.

Whilst these strikes were successful based on their scope, a large number of IS forces remain and the seemingly weak domestic forces on the ground have no guarantee of retaining any control over the Dam and the wider facility.

There’s also the issue that, despite media claims, the Dam doesn’t seem to be completely controlled by Iraqi-Kurdish authorities once again. According to Al Jazeera:

“Al Jazeera’s Jane Arraf, reporting from Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish region, said fierce fighting was still ongoing and that the announcement seemed “a bit premature”.

“Some units of Iraq’s security forces, the US-backed and trained counter-terrorism forces, are fighting with Kurdish forces to reclaim this vast critical facility,” she said.”

The quote was from an article dated August 18th. Clearly, the battle goes on, despite the military support/attacks from the United States. Arraf says that the claim is “a bit premature”. I would say it’s a clear attempt at marketing and hiding failings. You could draw some similarities with what happened in the George Orwell book, ‘1984’. This is also one battle that’s part of a much larger war.

Some of you might be wondering who asked for the strikes. Remember, military intervention without the request of a government can be considered an act of war. Well, the US has obviously being providing military support to Iraq for some time. The Kurdistan Regional Government also issued a communique that asked for support from the European Union, but that was more to do with refugees and equipping forces – nothing to do with the Dam specifically.

The following is from the ‘Dispositions’ section of Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War’:

“The experts in defence conceal themselves as under the ninefold earth; those skilled in attack move as from above the ninefold heavens. Thus they are capable both of protecting themselves and of gaining a complete victory.”

Clearly, IS have no real interest in concealing what they do. In this respect, they are deficient. The must have known that someone would do air strikes. There doesn’t seem to have been much effort to stop them either. This is an important facility. Why not do more? They obviously have substantial resources. The United States have a massive advantage in being able to attack constantly from the air. One strike wouldn’t be enough. The did it constantly to have the best chance of achieving their goals. Despite the limited scope of the strikes, I’m sure these won’t be the last.

About the Dam

A satellite image of the Dam (courtesy of Google Maps)

The Mosul Dam is the biggest in Iraq and the fourth largest in the middle east. It’s been in place since 1984, but has grown substantially over time. It also requires continuous maintenance and was one called ‘the most dangerous dam in the world’. Complete reconstruction was suggested at one point. Scenarios developed by the military included one which suggested the water would reach Mosul in two hours, causing much death and destruction. IS could either turn off the supply, or lay a simple series of explosives. Presumably, the Dam was not destroyed or damaged in any way because of it’s strategic value.

A brief history of Kurdistan and Mosul

The Dam is located in Mosul, which is a district in the Nineveh Province/Governorate. It is also in Kurdistan. It is not a country (although many want it to be), but it’s a region that crosses multiple countries. The part in Iraq is covered by an autonomy agreement that was put in place back in 1970. They have their own regional government and set of powers. In terms of Iraq as a whole, the Iraqi Kurdistan is part of a federation. There is no plan to make things more centralised, according to the KRG high representative.

Mosul is a large city. In fact, it is the second largest in Iraq (only Baghdad is bigger). It’s size and resources make it a major target. The city was captured by IS in June. It stands on the bank of the Tigris, which is considered one of two great rivers that defined an old nation called Mesopotamia. The Tigris has multiple Dams on it, but control over just one is still significant.


As part of my research for this post, I decided to consult some books of notable philosophers and tacticians. The following from Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ seems particularly appropriate:

“the less a man has relied on fortune the stronger he has made his position. It also helps if the prince has no other states and so is forced to live in his new state in person. But to come to those who became princes by their own abilities and not by good fortune, I say that the most outstanding are Moses, Cyrus, Romulus, Theseus, and others like them. Although one should not reason about Moses, since he merely executed what God commanded”

Although IS covers parts of Iraq and Syria, the Caliphate is considered one state. There is one leader and he lives there. As for the question of fortune or ability, I would say Caliph Ibrahim (formerly known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) is fortunate because he is targeting areas with ineffective governments, power struggles, poverty and dissatisfied citizens. They also offer their own unique form of hope, but it’s given after violence and intimidation. Both Ibrahim and his team have ability in that they knew what arms were needed to make progress. They also have an ability in the area of marketing and persuasion. They also know how to intimidate effectively.

Many would consider Ibrahim an effective leader who has ability. Whilst he has some, he is just carrying out what he believes to be the words of a greater power – Allah.

Although the following passage from Nietzsche’s ‘Beyond Good And Evil’ is about Christianity, some would say that it could (at least in part), be used to describe Islam (or any other religion):

“The Christian faith is from the beginning sacrifice: sacrifice of all freedom, all pride, all self-confidence of the spirit, at the same time enslavement and self-mockery, self-mutilation. There is cruelty and religious Phoenicianism in this faith exacted of an over-ripe, manifold and much-indulged conscience: it’s presupposition is that the subjection of the spirit is indescribably painful, that the entire past and habitude of such a spirit resists the absurdissimum which ‘faith’ appears to it to be.”

It’s obvious that religion plays a part in this situation. IS is a group of people with strong (some would say ‘extremist’) beliefs and a very strict interpretation of Islam. They are committed to their cause and will not stop until it is achieved. Nietzsche might say that the IS style of rule is absurd and cruel, based on the above quote. He wouldn’t be the only one to think that way.

The problem is that IS believe that what they are doing is just. They believe they are following the word of God and will not stop until they get what they want. Any negative comment about their style will not stop them. It will not intimidate them. It will only make them carry on.

Where there are religions with texts that are open to interpretation, there will always be some form of extremism. When there are multiple religions and extremist beliefs, there is always a likelihood of conflict. You have to end religion or end ambiguity in the texts to have any chance of stopping the likes of IS. The problem is, neither of those things will ever happen. There will always be extremists with courage in their convictions and an unwavering desire to implement their version of their religion across the world.

So, what do you think?

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  • mark

    Is extremism and conflict inevitable because of the inexact nature of religious texts or is it due to a dissatisfaction of the human spirit? Eg national socialism, the rise and fall thereof etc?