ISIS Seizes Iraq's Largest Dam, Town In Lebanon

As a shaky cease-fire takes hold in Gaza, some frightening things are happening elsewhere in the Middle East. After commandeering wide swathes of land in Iraq and Syria, the militant Sunni group formerly known as ISIS has now seized a border town in Lebanon, and is in at least partial control of Iraq’s largest damn. ISIS, which originated as a regional branch of al Qaeda and now calls itself the Islamic State, also took the Iraqi town of Sinjar on Sunday, forcing the evacuation of 200,000 people and creating what the United Nations has called a “humanitarian tragedy.”

“ISIS now controls a volume of resources and territory unmatched in the history of extremist organizations,” wrote Janine Davidson and Emerson Brooking at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It possesses the means to threaten its neighbors on multiple fronts, demonstrating a military effectiveness much greater than many observers expected.”

ISIS fighters in Syria have seized the Lebanon town of Arsal, which lies on the Syrian border. Arsal was already hosting around 120,000 refugees from the Syrian conflict, in addition to its 40,000 regular residents. It will undoubtedly become even more chaotic in the days ahead, as the Lebanese government sent troops into the town on Monday in attempt to retake it from ISIS.

Meanwhile, in Iraq, ISIS has taken at least partial control of the country’s largest hydroelectric dam. This is a crucial development, as control of the dam would give ISIS the ability deprive roughly 1.7 million Iraqis of water — or, in an even more extreme scenario, flood the city with 65-foot waves. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has deployed Iraqi troops to shore up local Kurdish forces in the region, which are apparently planning a counterattack.

ISIS, which was formally disowned by al-Qaeda in February for being too violent (yes), seeks to establish an Islamic theocracy, or caliphate, in the territory it controls, and in fact claims that it has already done so. However, the legitimacy of the Islamic State has not been acknowledged by any other governments. The group is unabashedly brutal — the group celebrated the World Cup by posting pictures of severed enemy heads on social media — and reportedly gives an ultimatum to residents of the towns it seizes: Convert or die. A Sunni group, one reason ISIS fell out out with al-Qaeda was that it was spending more time attacking Shia Muslims than Westerners.

The group mounted an unprecedentedly successful military campaign in June to take Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, and has expanded its control since then. The U.S. is providing technical support to al-Maliki’s government and Iraqi troops; however, it’s unclear how much, if at all, this will help, given that many in the Iraqi military appear not only chronically inept, but literally unwilling to fight.

If there’s one silver lining in the conflict, it’s that it may inadvertently help accelerate the thaw in diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Iran. The two countries have made significant progress in negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, and now, the situation in Iraq gives them another avenue in which to cooperate. Iran is a Shia-controlled state, and does not want a group of militant Sunni extremists controling a bordering state; therefore, there have been murmurs of the U.S. and Iran possibly coordinating in some way to prevent ISIS’s advance.