Iraqi officials are claiming that Iraqi and Kurdish forces have taken control of Mosul Dam back from IS:
Iraqi state television quoted Gen. Qassim Atta, an Iraqi military spokesman, as saying that Iraqi special forces and Kurdish forces were in command of the dam, the largest in Iraq. Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurdish leader and the foreign minister in Iraqi’s departing government, also said by telephone Monday that the dam was in the hands of Iraqi and Kurdish forces.
But they don’t seem to be too interested in showing off their supposed conquest, so there’s a fair chance that they’re exaggerating just a teeny bit:
But as of midday, no photographs or videos had been released showing the security forces inside the dam, and the Kurdish military was preventing journalists from approaching the area and keeping residents from returning to their homes in villages nearby.
Even if IS has retreated from the dam itself, they could still be close enough to it to shell government and Kurdish positions, and apparently they had heavily mined the dam before they left, so that also still has to be dealt with.
Still, assuming that the recapture of the dam is at least in progress, this is a big victory. The Islamic State’s control over the dam put it in position to do all sorts of nasty things to the rest of Iraq, like cutting off electricity, or shutting off the crucial Tigris water flow to agricultural regions around Baghdad and to the south, or, worst case, blowing the dam and flooding Mosul and Baghdad. On top of that, don’t underestimate the effect of a big win over the enemy to boost the spirits of the Kurds and the Iraqi army, particularly given that the win shows that the pairing of US air support and Iraqi/Kurdish ground forces can be successful. That success, combined with the change of government in Baghdad, seems to be encouraging a wider US involvement, supporting offensive military action against IS rather than just limiting itself to defensive airstrikes and humanitarian relief.
Unfortunately, this progress against IS is coming too late for hundreds of Yazidis who have already been executed by IS fighters. The threat to Yazidis and Christians still trapped in IS-controlled areas remains immense, maybe even more immense as IS starts to retreat and looks to inflict as much suffering as it can in the process.
This move also comes at what appears to be a critical time for IS. The Abadi government is in its “anybody but Maliki” honeymoon phase, and Sunni leaders in Anbar are talking about joining the government and fighting against IS. If Abadi can make that happen, it will start to look a lot like the “Sunni Awakening” movement that launched in 2005 to build Sunni opposition to IS’s earlier incarnation, Al-Qaeda in Iraq. It was the Sunni Awakening, in which the US
bribed, um, paid salaries to a number of Sunni militias to get them to stop fighting alongside AQI and start fighting against them, that really reduced sectarian violence in the 2006-2007 period, not the “surge,” despite what the neocon right claims. Among Maliki’s many failures as PM was his insistence, once the AQI threat was contained, on treating those Sunni tribes as potential enemies rather than as partners in countering any future extremist movements. Hopefully Abadi will have learned a lesson from his buddy Maliki’s failure.
In Syria, meanwhile, it appears that over the last couple of weeks IS was forced to put down a substantial tribal revolt in the eastern province of Deir ez-Zor, which resulted in the execution of over 700 Sunnis of the Sheitat tribe, mostly civilians (another 1800 of them are unaccounted for). Aside from providing a compelling humanitarian justification for the West to attack IS in Syria (which I’m not advocating and don’t think is actually going to happen, despite the fact that the Syrian National Coalition and the Free Syrian Army are now asking for it), that kind of massacre is a strange way to win hearts and minds in a region that is obviously not firmly under IS control. IS also captured a Syrian military base near Raqqa, which on the one hand was a victory for them but on the other hand seems to have brought them into open conflict with the Assad government and its air force. Assad had previously been happy to leave IS alone; for one thing, IS has spent more time fighting other rebels than it has fighting Assad, and for another, IS’s existence has made it very easy for Assad to paint the entire rebellion as the work of religious extremists.