Saturday, January 16, 2016

One Dam Catastrophe for Iraq, Another Damn Catastrophe For Iraqis

When the Islamic State took control of large swathes of Northern Iraq in 2014, Mosul was the most significant blow. The fall of the city in that early June was one of the most humiliating losses suffered by the Iraqi Army during the entire conflict. The Iraqi soldiers, unwilling to fight, left some 2,300 military Humvees and stockpiles of weapons to be amassed by the extremist organization. The value of the armored vehicles alone is estimated at over 1 billion USD and has come to be described as "Iraq's worst nightmare", many of them now being used in suicide bombings.

Yet, the surrender of stockpiles of weapons and armored vehicles to the most loathed organization in the world isn't even the worst part of the fall of Mosul.

Mosul possesses the most important dam in all of Iraq. With a capacity of over 11 cubic kilometers of water, it once provided electricity to nearly 2 million Iraqis. The dam was built during the reign of Saddam Hussein when Iraq was at war with Iran.

The foundation of the dam was built on gypsum, a soft mineral that dissolves when it comes into contact with water. Although this made the construction of the dam completely unadvisable, the late dictator was assured that the dam could be kept in place with the appropriate maintenance. All that had to be done to reinforce the dam were regular injections of concrete to plug the formation of any leaks.

Maintenance had been carried out regularly over the years since the dam was built, long after the war with Iran had ended and even after the fall of Saddam Hussein, right until ISIS moved into Mosul in 2014. The militant group made threats that they would submerge Baghdad, however were soon pushed back by Kurdish forces during the three-day offensive.

While the dam has been in Kurdish hands ever since, the government has still been unable to carry out the maintenance and repairs that are necessary to keep the dam stable. The situation nearby remains so dangerous and fighting so tense that the government has been unable to send the much-needed workers or materials to mend the condition of the dam.

The situation is now critical and perhaps beyond repair. Many experts have warned that the dam will soon collapse entirely. This would be spell the most devastating humanitarian crisis for Iraq, possibly since the start of the US-led invasion in 2003.

Some estimate that the collapse of the dam could claim the lives of up to 500,000 Iraqis. People would not only die in the initial flooding throughout Iraq but the devastating water shortages that will follow, impacting the level of readily available water for both consumption and for farming. Thus, famine could also be around the corner for Iraq, requiring more assistance from the international community and making it even more incapable of dealing with the threat of the Islamic State.

If this catastrophe were to unravel, it would impact Europe and America just as much as it does Iraq. Thousands would flee the country and make the hazardous journey towards Europe in search of the stability that Iraq has failed to foster. It would further increase the risk of violent attacks, as the European Union would be overwhelmed by influx of refugees  and allow for radicals to seep in unnoticed among them. It would further destabilize Iraq and allow for even more gains by the Islamic State, as the country would be grappling with an unprecedented humanitarian crisis while at the same time fighting a war.

A 2006 study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers named it as the "most dangerous dam in the world", and many of the estimates regarding civilian casualties are based on their findings. Among these were that Baghdad itself would be submerged by up to 15 feet of water, crippling the country's capital. It would further limit the presence of both the U.S. and U.N. whose compounds would similarly be submerged if this were to play out.

Iraq has attempted to ease the pressure on the dam by letting out water, however the rate at which it can dispel is far smaller than at which rains are building up in the reservoir. The situation will continue to deteriorate as February and March are on average the months Iraq experiences the highest level of raining. 

With so much evidence of an impending disaster that threatens several hundred thousand Iraqis, decision makers are left with few options. It may be days, weeks or months, however the dam has forgone proper maintenance for over a year and will soon give way. By that time, Iraqis have to be prepared and evacuated and the European Union ready to deal with the further proliferation of the refugee crisis.

Monday, January 4, 2016

A New Year With Little Promise for the Middle East

Saudi Arabia's execution of the prominent Shiite cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, has set off protests throughout the Middle East.

In Ankara, Baghdad and Tehran protestors took to the streets to voice their indignation of the Saudi Kingdom's move to have the cleric, among almost 50 others convicted on terrorism charges, executed. Nimr al-Nimr was allegedly responsible for the killing of Saudi police officers during rioting, which his family contends. 

In Tehran, the protest outside the Saudi Embassy soon turned violent with demonstrators making their way into the compound as they set the building alight with molotov cocktails.

The violence against Saudi Arabia's Embassy no doubt provokes the memory of the U.S. hostage-taking in 1979, where Iran's revolution and political shift left America's presence loathed and unguarded for a historic support of the authoritarian Shah, previously Iran's leader. The 444 days of captivity for staffers and their families remains a point of contention for both nations.

In response to the event, Saudi Arabia was quick to announce it is cutting diplomatic, commercial and even transportation ties between the two states. The attack on the Embassy left no one injured but may lead to unprecedented bloodshed even amid the current prevalence of religious fundamentalism and violent extremism.

Analysts have spoken plainly regarding the effects of the quarrel between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Looking to establish peace and stability in countries Syria, Yemen and Iraq will remain almost impossible if not for the coordination between the region's two most powerful nations, which just so happen to be religiously partial.

This was signaled by several nation's move to align themselves with either of the two; the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, among other Sunni-majority states, flocked in support of Saudi Arabia while in Iraq, a Shia-majority nation like Iran, politicians and religious figures made clear Saudi Arabia's wrongdoing in accordance with the Iranian view.

The international response to the execution has been overwhelmingly in favor of Iran and against Saudi Arabia for a move that clearly aims to further destabilize the region and allow the further spread of the Islamic State, which follows a fundamentalist doctrine of Sunni Islam.

Saudi Arabia is becoming increasingly uncurbed. The Kingdom has had direct involvement in the success of the Islamic State in recent months in Iraq and its intentions of promoting religious bloodshed can be traced back to an infamous conversation that took place between then-head of MI6, sir Richard Dearlove, and Prince Bandar Bin Sultan; the latter exclaimed, "the time is not far off in the Middle East...when it will be literally 'God help the Shia'. More than a billion Sunnis have simply had enough of them."

The conversation makes discernible the irked state's position, as shown by one of its most distinguished representatives to the West at the time. 

In the aftermath of the continued violence at the blood-spattered hands of ISIL, Dearlove has remarked that Saudi Arabia is evidently complicit in genocide. This is constituted primarily by the "Muslim-on-Muslim" conflict that has emerged, but also religious minorities, notably Christians. 

Hundreds of thousands have been displaced and some estimates have shown that some nations will have no Christian population within a matter of years owing to ISIS violence and Saudi backing. 

The current conflict between these two nations, and the general involvement of Saudi Arabia in fueling extremism, has urgent implications for the West. As the U.S. continues to move away from Saudi Arabia and closer to Iran with regards to the conflict in Syria, we will seen an increase in violence. 

This violence will not only take place in desolate deserts, but across the world, as the Islamic State continues to have safe havens from which to operate and promote bloodshed. The terrorist group's internet presence will further weave extremism into the fabric of European and American society, making it harder to identify and deal with over time. 

Saudi Arabia's involvement has largely been avoided as a topic of political conversation. However, decreasing oil prices (which only spiked during the current situation), mean less dependence on the Saudis and more spine for Europe and North America. The lifting of Iranian sanctions have helped more Iranian crude make its way to the market, and the Western reaction to the execution is in no way a coincident. Germany, whose relations with Iran are budding, has already suspended weapons exports to the Kingdom and it won't be alone in its response. 

While Saudi Arabia has undertaken a step to perturb the region, its own position is most threatened.
The Kingdom continues to shroud flagrant support for religious extremism, yet Iran continues to leverage its relation with the U.S. through involvement in Syria -- the right type of involvement. No doubt a shouting match with Iran will only leave the Kingdom with a broken voice.