The Islamic State has a card up its sleeve in the event that the group is backed into a corner: the ability to unleash a flood of Biblical proportions that would kill tens of thousands in Iraq.
Since 2013, ISIS has maintained control of the Tabqa dam, which was created with support from the Soviet Union in 1973, The Wall Street Journal reports.
The dam is located 25 miles west of Raqqa, where ISIS currently has its Syrian headquarters stationed. Tabqa is an incredible construction. The wall is 200 feet high and three miles long and holds back the entirety of Lake Assad. In total, Lake Assad spans 50 miles.
Tabqa is where ISIS places its senior officials and important prisoners, since the group thinks that the U.S. doesn’t have the fortitude to bomb the facility and risk unleashing an unbelievable torrent of water. Islamic State fighters constantly patrol the facility, and even if the U.S. attempts a ground operation to take back the dam, ISIS may decide to destroy it altogether. Additionally, there are no U.S. or allied ground troops in Syria able to take back the dam in the first place.
The U.S. is perfectly aware of what’s at stake and has paid close attention to the way ISIS uses the dam. Militants recently restricted the water supply to put pressure on Iraqis in the Anbar province. While U.S. bombs may not be forthcoming, some analysts are concerned that if ISIS is on its last ropes, the group may blow the dam, which would cut out electricity for eastern Syria and potentially kill tens of thousands.
“That’s an ecological disaster for Iraq and a humanitarian catastrophe for Syria,” Ariel Ahram, associate professor at Virginia Tech, told The Wall Street Journal.
Lake Assad is already slowly losing water. Back in 2014, Al Jazeera reported that water levels had dropped low enough that at the time, water pumps had stopped functioning, forcing local residents to find water in puddles and other contaminated sources. Most of the drop is due to increasing demands being placed on the hydroelectric dam for electricity generation by technically inexperienced ISIS engineers.
ISIS has repeated the same tactics of water and electricity restriction in 2015 and sought to take over the Haditha dam in western Iraq. Up to this point, U.S. airstrikes and Iraqi forces have managed to ward off militants.
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