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The Water Wars Waged by ISIS

THE LEVANT NEWS — By Ambika Vishwanath for STRATFOR–

The Islamic State’s use of natural resources to achieve its strategic goals is nothing new. Oil, one of the group’s biggest sources of funding, plays an especially important role in its calculations — something the countries fighting the Islamic State are increasingly coming to realize. And they have begun to adjust their target sets accordingly. The United States and France, for example, have begun to launch airstrikes against the group’s oil trucks and distribution centers, hoping to hamper its ability to pay for its military operations.

But what is less talked about, although no less important, is the Islamic State’s use of water in its fight to establish a caliphate. Its tactics have brought water to the forefront of the conflict in Iraq and Syria, threatening the very existence of the people living under its oppressive rule. If the Islamic State’s opponents do not move to sever the group’s hold over Iraqi and Syrian water sources — and soon — it may prove difficult to liberate the region from the Islamic State’s hold in the long term.

An Age-Old Conflict

Civilizations have long battled for access to water and founded their empires around great rivers. Historians believe that the ancient Sumerian city of Ur was favored by the empires that followed for its abundance of water and its proximity to the Persian Gulf. Other accounts say the city’s inhabitants abandoned it amid severe droughts and the drying up of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Today, drought and low rainfall compete with the manmade disaster of terrorism to destroy the same, once-fertile swathe of land stretching along the two rivers.

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Governments and non-state actors alike have used water as a weapon for centuries. While the number of full-blown wars over water resources has been lower than one might expect, given how critical water is to any population’s survival, smaller conflicts have been numerous, destructive and deadly. The Middle East has fallen prey to this competition in recent years as states and groups have increasingly shifted from simply cutting off water supplies for a short period of time to diverting water flows or completely draining supplies in an attempt to threaten or coerce consumers.

The Islamic State is no exception. Since the group began expanding its territorial claims in western Syria, it has used water as a tool in its broader strategy of advancing and establishing control over new land. True, the Islamic State has also (and perhaps more visibly) targeted strategic oil and natural gas fields in both Syria and Iraq, but a close look at the group’s movements clearly indicates that the Tigris and Euphrates rivers hold a central role in its planning. Recognition of the Islamic State’s intention to organize its new caliphate around the Tigris-Euphrates Basin may prove helpful in the long-term fight against the group.

In 2012, the Islamic State emerged from the power vacuum created by the Syrian civil war and made its presence known in the western city of Aleppo. It had little in common with Syria’s other rebel groups, which were primarily focused on fighting the forces of Syrian President Bashar al Assad for regime change. Instead, the Islamic State was a terrorist organization with a clear agenda and strategy: It wanted to build an Islamic caliphate that would, from its perspective, follow the truest form of Islam as decreed by the Prophet Mohammed. Over the following year, the group moved quickly and decisively, cutting a path through Syria and toward Iraq, capturing the key towns of Maskana, Raqqa, Deir el-Zour and al-Bukamal — all of which are positioned along the Euphrates River.

The Iraqi front didn’t look much different; the Islamic State easily captured the river towns of Qaim, Rawah, Ramadi and Fallujah, two of which (Rawah and Ramadi) gave the group direct access to two of Iraq’s major lakes, Haditha Dam Lake and Lake Tharthar. Meanwhile, the Islamic State pursued a similar strategy along the Tigris River, successfully capturing Mosul and Tikrit and attempting to seize other towns and cities along the way. In Iraq the goal was Baghdad, from which the group could rule a caliphate encompassing Syria and Iraq. While the oil and natural gas fields it seized along the way were a means for the group to threaten military forces and make money, the bodies of water and infrastructure were a means to hold the entire region hostage.

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