TIME Middle East

Video Shows Beheading of American Journalist

Journalist James Foley covers the civil war in Aleppo, Syria, in November 2012.
Journalist James Foley covers the civil war in Aleppo, Syria, in November 2012. Nicole Tung—AP

James Foley went missing in November 2012

Updated 11:43 a.m. on Aug. 20

A video posted online Tuesday purportedly shows an Islamist extremist beheading James Foley, an American journalist kidnapped in Syria more than 18 months ago.

A graphic video of the purported killing, which the U.S. government believes to be authentic, was posted online Tuesday and quickly spread on social media. The video, which appears to be the work of the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, declares the act “A Message to #America (from the #IslamicState)” and retribution for the United States’ intervention against ISIS in Iraq. Some versions of the video and Twitter accounts circulating it were quickly taken offline Tuesday evening, though the video soon appeared on YouTube again.

TIME is not publishing the video. The video also includes a threat to kill Steven Sotloff, a freelance journalist who has written for TIME among other outlets, and has been missing since August 2013.

A spokesperson for the U.S. National Security Council said Wednesday morning the American intelligence community believes the video is authentic.

“The U.S. Intelligence Community has analyzed the recently released video showing U.S. citizens James Foley and Steven Sotloff,” said NSC spokesperson Caitlin Hayden. “We have reached the judgment that this video is authentic.”

A Facebook page affiliated with the Foley family’s campaign for his release posted a message Tuesday evening from his mother, Diane Foley.

“We have never been prouder of our son Jim,” she wrote. “He gave his life trying to expose the world to the suffering of the Syrian people…We thank Jim for all the joy he gave us. He was an extraordinary son, brother, journalist and person. Please respect our privacy in the days ahead as we mourn and cherish Jim.”

White House spokesman Eric Schultz said in a statement Tuesday that President Barack Obama had been briefed on the video and “will continue to receive regular updates.”

The White House announced that Obama will deliver a statement at 12:45 p.m. Wednesday.

Foley “was taken by an organized gang after departing from an internet café in Binesh, Syria,” near the Turkish border, the Federal Bureau of Investigation said in an alert following the Nov. 22, 2012, kidnapping. He was in Binesh covering the Syrian civil war for the GlobalPost website and AFP.

Foley, 40, grew up in New Hampshire, where his parents live.

TIME Iraq

U.S. Continues Airstrikes Near Iraq’s Mosul Dam

Mideast Iraq
Smoke rises during airstrikes targeting Islamic State militants at the Mosul Dam outside Mosul, Iraq, Monday, Aug. 18, 2014. Khalid Mohammed—AP

Iraqi forces secured the dam yesterday but operations to expand control of the area continued Tuesday

American forces launched a second round of airstrikes against Islamic militants near Iraq’s Mosul Dam Tuesday as Iraqi government forces looked to expand their zone of control around the critical infrastructure.

“There’s still operations to expand that control in and around the dam,” Pentagon spokesperson James Gregory told TIME. “Those operations are ongoing.”

Two airstrikes have been conducted in the last 24 hours, one of which successfully destroyed an Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) checkpoint, according to a statement from U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM). The other airstrike was unsuccessful, CENTCOM said.

U.S. airstrikes helped Kurdish and Iraqi forces recapture control of the Mosul Dam from ISIS forces Monday. The dam is of strategic significance, and thousands of civilian lives, including the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, would be put at risk if it were breached, President Barack Obama said Monday.

ISIS forces have been making their way across Iraq after spilling over from Syria, wrestling control of several parts of the country away from the Iraqi government. The U.S. military first engaged with ISIS earlier this month as part of an effort to help thousands of Iraqi civilians who fled to a mountain range while seeking refuge from the advancing militants.

TIME foreign affairs

How Hope for a Kurdish State Vanished Overnight

IS-led militants driven from Mosul Dam
Iraqi army and Peshmerga forces take security precautions against possible ISIS-led attacks around the Mosul Dam on August 19, 2014 in Mosul, Iraq. Anadolu Agency—Getty Images

Many thought it would be the future of Iraq. Then ISIS came along

Just one month ago, the Chief of Staff to Kurdish President Barzazi and the Kurdish Defense Minister travelled to Washington, D.C., and policy makers wondered if, finally, the time was ripe for an independent state. The Iraqi province of Kurdistan was held up as what Iraq could be: a secure area with a booming economy and a what was thought to be a well-trained army.

After the American-led no fly zone in Iraqi Kurdistan in 1991, the Kurds focused on internal economic growth by taking advantage of the vast supply of oil. The Kurdish Regional Government convinced oil companies like ExxonMobil, Total and Gazprom to defy the government in Baghdad and invest in the region by showing them how stable their investment would be–while the rest of Iraq became engulfed in the rising number of IEDs.

A model for regional stability, an independent Kurdistan was the future of Iraq, many (including Vice President Biden) thought.

Then ISIS came.

In June, ISIS took over the Iraqi cities of Mosul and Tikrit, and quickly focused their sights on the northeastern Kurdish region. While groups like the Afghan Taliban receive funding through the illicit trade of illegal drugs like heroin, ISIS is much more sophisticated, said Steve Levine, a New America Future Tense Fellow, at a recent panel discussion held at New America. They are doing something that no terrorist group has been able to do so far: gain control of standard resources like wheat fields, oil refineries and dams that power hydroelectric plants. They’re organized, they have a central command and control center, they’re logistically sophisticated and they have democratized violence using social media for their own purposes. All of these things have allowed ISIS to continue their advance and drive at the heart of the Kurdish independent region, that is, oil refineries in the north, and so the bubble has burst on dreams of an independent Kurdistan.

As recently as last week, the Kurdish city of Erbil was attacked in a strong offensive by ISIS, and American diplomats living in the city were in danger. Fearing another Benghazi disaster, which left four American diplomats dead, President Obama ordered the use of targeted airstrikes to slow the advance of ISIS. Bolstered by these airstrikes, the Peshmerga have pushed back ISIS in concentrated areas. But in vast areas without air support, the losses of the Peshmerga have continued. Without proper training and experience, the Peshmerga simply have not performed as expected, said Derek Harvey (Ret.), a Former Senior Analyst for Iraq for General David H. Petraeus. The losses currently being felt by the Peshmerga may be due to the fact that after the Iraqi government pulled out of several towns, and that the Kurds over-extended their territory, extending their borders by almost 40 percent overnight, said Denise Natali, a Senior Research Fellow at the National Defense University.

At the same time that Kurds have been taking these significant territorial losses, the backbone of their economy — their oil industry — evaporated almost overnight. All of the major oil companies in the Kurdish region have left, and the economy has come to a virtual standstill, said Natali. More so, Kurdish tankers that are currently carrying oil have been operating in international legal limbo and sitting just off shore. Unable to dock and unload their cargo, a legal battle has began in American civil courts. To the delight of the government in Baghdad, the State Department has actively called countries and oil traders to discourage the oil from being purchased.

In fact, even if the oil industry was operating as usual, the idea of an economically vibrant Kurdish state was a myth. “The Kurdish economy has been propped up by the government in Baghdad, the United States, and even Iran,” said Natali. “Even if the oil industry is operating at full capacity, they would essentially be a client state of Turkey.”

The advance of ISIS has shown that Kurdistan cannot succeed without a strong Iraq, and vice versa. The U.S. airstrikes that have bolstered the Kurds have been closely coordinated with the government back in Baghdad, and the intelligence shared between the two armies has been essential. As for the Kurdish oil, it can only be exported if Baghdad drops its proprietary claims and allows it to be sold on the international market. Put simply: the fantasy of a Kurdish independent state has evaporated for the time being. But if the Kurds continue to work with the government in Baghdad, there’s a chance that they could prevent ISIS from spreading into Jordan or Lebanon and further destabilizing the region, and, if they’re lucky, they could start to rebuild the region — together.

Justin Lynch is the Social Media Coordinator at the New America Foundation. Emily Schneider is a research associate for the national security program at New America. This piece originally appeared on The Weekly Wonk.

TIME Iraq

Iraq Fighting Is Driving Weapons Prices Through the Roof

An Iraqi Kurd inspects a machine gun at an arms market in Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq on Aug. 17, 2014.
An Iraqi Kurd inspects a machine gun at an arms market in Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq on Aug. 17, 2014. Safin Hamed—AFP/Getty Images

A fight against ISIS militants leads to skyrocketing prices

Next to a criminal prison in Erbil, Kurdish traders hawk Kalashnikovs, pistols and even American made M16s.

“This is $1,500,” says Saleh Mahmoud, stroking the wooden shaft of a Bulgarian-made Kalashnikov. “Last week this gun was $2,000. The day the terrorists came near Erbil everyone was buying weapons.”

Mahmoud has dealt in arms since 1991, when the Kurds were battling Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army. In more than two decades in the arms trade, he says he’s never seen prices skyrocket like they did 10 days ago as Islamist militants showed up on the Kurds’ doorstep. And while Kurdish fighters, known as the peshmerga, retook the critical Mosul Dam from the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) on Monday, the fighting against the extremists is far from over. The peshmerga were only able to retake the dam with assistance from the Iraqi national army and heavy American air cover. The fact that it took three armed forces to recapture just one structure from ISIS shows the strength of the militants—and doesn’t bode well for Iraqi and Kurdish forces. The semi-autonomous Kurds are considered to have the most capable army in Iraq, but they have mostly light artillery, and no air force.

Outside the headquarters of Asayesh, the peshmerga’s intelligence arm, three large Kurdish men stand on guard with Russian made weapons—a couple of aging Kalashnikovs and a newer Izhmash. A lot of the weapons carried by peshmerga forces were looted from Saddam’s army bases in 1990s, and they weren’t top shelf even then.

President Barack Obama said Monday that the United States had “urgently provided additional arms and assistance to Iraqi forces, including Kurdish and Iraqi security forces who are fighting on the front lines.” But Colonel Hersh Muhsin, who heads the Asayesh munitions unit in Erbil, says he hasn’t seen any new guns.

“Come with me,” he says, opening a closest with a few RPGs and rifles leaning against the wall and mounted PKC machine gun sitting on the floor. “These RPGs are useless against America-made armored vehicles. On the front lines, ISIS all have American made weapons, and we do not.”

But while they may be poorly armed, Muhsin says the peshmerga are strong because they are fighting to protect their land. “Less important is the gun, and more important is the strength of the ideology of the hand that holds it,” he says.

The peshmerga are known for being passionate fighters, raised on guns and nationalism in the mountains of Kurdistan, but Muhsin may be underestimating the conviction of the ISIS fighters who pledge their allegiance to the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and fight for the dream of an Islamic caliphate.

The lack of budget and supplies has pushed Kurdish fighters to buy their own guns. That, combined with the fear of the general population, pushed up weapons prices early in the month.

“But now people are looking to the media which says everyday that France, Germany and America will send weapons,” Muhsin says.

Back at the market, the buyers and sellers say that prices have finally dipped, a sign people here have faith the weapons are coming from aboard. The market is filled with peshmerga fighters buying their own guns, but everyone here calls for the international community to give more.

“I bought this to fight ISIS,” says Niro Talat, a 34-year-old driver who managed to find $3,000 to buy a brand-new M-16. He twists the sleek black weapon in his hands. “This is better than a Kalashnikov. It’s more accurate. It’s a good weapon.”

No one here seems to know how a new M-16, stamped, “Property of the U.S. GOVT,” ended-up in this market, but it raises questions about the fate of foreign arms provided to the Kurds to fight ISIS.

The position of this gun market, a few hundred meters from a criminal prison, may be an indication of the Kurdish forethought when comes to weapons. “Do you want to take a picture of an RPG,” asks a man leaning into the car wearing military fatigues and the very-popular-here faux ‘US Army’ shirt. “Come, it’s in my house.”

The peshmerga were born of Kurdish resistance and trained as guerilla fighters to protect their mountainous territory and fight for independence. The Kurdish leaders are preaching about ISIS’s brutality and the militants’ superior American arms, demanding equally good weapons to fight the extremists.

But where will those guns be pointed when—or if—ISIS is defeated? The goal of theses Kurdish fighters has always been an independent Kurdistan.

TIME Iraq

ISIS to U.S.: ‘We Will Drown All of You in Blood’

The militants are on the defensive following a series of successful U.S. airstrikes

The Sunni extremist group that is ravaging large swaths of northern Iraq has warned it will attack Americans “in any place” should U.S. airstrikes kill any of its members, Reuters reports.

American airstrikes began earlier this month in an attempt to help thousands of people—members of the Yazidi, an ethnic minority in the region—who were trapped on a mountain range by fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). President Barack Obama formally told Congress on Sunday that he had sanctioned additional air raids, though he said they would be limited. The new strikes, requested by the Iraqi government, were intended to help Iraqi and Kurdish security forces who had been battling the militants for control of the strategic Mosul Dam. Aided by U.S. air support, these troops successfully recaptured it on Aug. 18.

U.S. Central Command said at least 14 airstrikes were conducted on Sunday, and had successfully damaged or destroyed ISIS vehicles and one of its checkpoints. The group’s latest missive might reflect its anger towards the U.S., whose aerial support has allowed the Iraqi and Kurdish forces to reclaim some of the territory that ISIS had seized in a lightning offensive in June.

Reuters adds that the purported ISIS video shows an image of an American, who was beheaded during the U.S.-led war in Iraq that ended in 2011. The 45-second film also shows people being shot by snipers and vehicles being blown up. Near the start of the clip, the group’s black flag appears next to an American one. A message, in English, then flashes up: “We will drown all of you in blood.” A crude splatter of blood then appears on the U.S. flag to emphasize the point.

The militants have focused on territorial gains in parts of eastern Syria and northern Iraq, claiming them in its bid to establish a caliphate, or an Islamic state. But unlike al-Qaeda, which deemed this off-shoot too extreme, ISIS has not yet directly attacked the West.

[Reuters]

TIME Foreign Policy

Obama’s Mission Creep in Iraq

US-POLITICS-OBAMA
US President Barack Obama speaks about the US involvement in Iraq, as well as the situation in Ferguson, Missouri, in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, DC, August 18, 2014. Saul Loeb—AFP/Getty Images

For George W. Bush it was "Mission Accomplished." For Barack Obama, it may be "mission creep."

In 2003, George W. Bush was too quick to declare that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended.” In 2014, Barack Obama may be too slow to admit that they are just beginning.

On Monday, President Obama boasted to White House reporters that U.S. airstrikes had helped Iraqi forces reclaim the Mosul Dam, which Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters captured in early August. That was great news. A dam breach — from sabotage or poor maintenance — could have drowned thousands and even flooded the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.

But it was not an objective Obama had publicly mentioned before, even though ISIS had controlled the dam for two weeks. Does Obama worry about “mission creep,” asked a Reuters correspondent? No way, Obama said. “I have been firm from the start that we are not reintroducing thousands of U.S. troops on the ground to re-engage in combat,” the President said.

“Typically what happens with mission creep is we start deciding that we’re the ones who have to do it all ourselves,” Obama added.

Of course, mission creep doesn’t have to mean a huge ground force, or going it alone. (America became mired in Vietnam while fighting in tandem with South Vietnamese forces.) It can simply mean expanding goals that lead to an unexpectedly large military campaign. And we’re already seeing signs of that in Iraq.

Rewind to August 7, when Obama spoke in prime time to announce his first airstrikes in Iraq. He described two limited and discrete operations. One was “targeted airstrikes to protect our American personnel” in the Kurdish city of Erbil, which ISIS was threatening to capture. The other was a humanitarian mission to save thousands of Yazidi civilians trapped by ISIS on a mountain and facing what Obama called “an act of genocide.”

Obama can check those boxes: A Kurdish counteroffensive backed by the U.S. and Baghdad has driven ISIS away from Erbil. As for the Yezidis, Obama said on Friday that “the situation on the mountain has greatly improved” thanks to U.S. efforts, and that most have escaped to safety.

But then another item was quietly added to the to-do list: the Mosul Dam. Announced with little fanfare by a Sunday White House statement, the operation entailed 35 airstrikes on ISIS positions in the area.

On Monday Obama justified that action as “directly tied to our objective of protecting Americans in Iraq,” because a dam breach would have “endangered our embassy compound in Baghdad.”

Never mind that Baghdad is more than 250 miles south of Mosul, presumably allowing time for a relocation or evacuation of U.S. personnel. It’s hard to fault a casualty-free operation that might have averted a catastrophe — and killed some ISIS fanatics along the way.

The worry is that Obama’s rationale of “protecting Americans in Iraq” can be stretched to justify almost any kind of military action — especially now that he has more than doubled the U.S. presence in Iraq to nearly 2000 personnel since June. (A key stage of mission creep in Vietnam involved sending troops to protect U.S. air bases in that country.)

But Obama has given himself even broader license than that. When he announced the dispatch of 300 military advisors to Iraq back on June 19, Obama wrote himself something like a blank check.

“[W]e will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action,” Obama said, “if and when we determine that the situation on the ground requires it.”

That language covers even more action that Obama’s protect-Americans vow. ISIS is little too close to Baghdad? Boom. Intel about suicide bombers eyeing Erbil? Boom. Imminent slaughter somewhere? Boom, boom, boom.

You can support all those actions and still find Obama’s explanations a little cloudy. After all, Obama has promised “limited” military action before — only to shatter those limits. In March 2011, Obama said he was ordering airstrikes in Libya to prevent a civilian massacre by regime forces in Benghazi. The ensuing air campaign lasted for seven months and involved more than 26,000 air sorties by a multinational coalition.

Could we be at the start of something similar? The Pentagon says the U.S. has already conducted 68 airstrikes in Iraq since August 8, and Obama is talking about more assistance for the new government forming in Baghdad.

Fortunately for Obama, the public isn’t creeped out just yet. Fifty-four percent of Americans approve of his airstrikes so far, according to an August 18 Pew Research Center-USA Today poll.

But that support may be fragile. Pew also found that 51 percent of Americans worry Obama “will go too far getting involved in the situation.”

Obama’s vow not to commit ground troops to combat will help maintain political support. Still, that number could grow — especially if he doesn’t explain clearly how his mission can be neither accomplished nor creeping.

TIME Foreign Policy

Obama Hails Retaking of Mosul Dam in Iraq

US-POLITICS-OBAMA
US President Barack Obama speaks about the US involvement in Iraq, as well as the situation in Ferguson, Missouri, in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, DC, August 18, 2014. Saul Loeb—AFP/Getty Images

Iraqi and Kurdish forces wrested control of the dam early Monday, with air support from the U.S.

President Barack Obama praised Iraqi gains against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in recent days, as U.S.-backed forces wrested control of a key dam from the militant group.

On Monday, Iraqi and Kurdish forces, backed by U.S. airpower, recaptured the strategic Mosul dam from the Sunni extremist group, both securing a vital source of electricity and preventing a catastrophic release of water that could have inundated parts of northern Iraq.

Speaking from the White House after returning early Monday for a brief interlude from his Martha’s Vineyard vacation, Obama hailed the dam operation as a “major step forward” in the battle against ISIS.

“If that dam was breached, it could have proven catastrophic, with floods that would’ve threatened the lives of thousands of civilians and endanger our embassy compound in Baghdad,” Obama said. “Iraqi and Kurdish forces took the lead on the ground and performed with courage and determination. So this operation demonstrates that Iraqi and Kurdish forces are capable of working together and taking the fight to ISIL. If they continue to do so, they will have the strong support of the United States of America.”

U.S. Central Command has been carrying out strikes against ISIS targets near the dam with fighter, attack, bomber, and unmanned aerial assets since Saturday. On Sunday, Obama informed Congress that he had authorized strikes against ISIS targets near the dam.

“Let’s remember, ISIL poses a threat to all Iraqis and to the entire region,” Obama said, using an alternative acronym for the militant group. “They claim to represent Sunni grievances, but they slaughter Sunni men, women and children. They claim to oppose foreign forces, but they actively recruit foreign fighters to advance their hateful ideology. So the Iraqi people need to reject them and unite to begin to push them out of the lands that they’ve occupied, as we’re seeing at Mosul Dam.”

Obama also announced continued progress in the effort to build an international coalition to provide humanitarian assistance to northern Iraq, as well as working with the newly designated Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Albadi on building a more inclusive government in Iraq.

“This is going to take time,” Obama added. “There are going to be many challenges ahead. But meanwhile, there should be no doubt that the United States military will continue to carry out the limited missions that I’ve authorized: protecting our personnel and facilities in Iraq in both Erbil and Baghdad; and providing humanitarian support as we did on Mount Sinjar.”

TIME Military

Dam Yankees: U.S. Steps Up Bombing in Northern Iraq

IRAQ-UNREST-KURDS-DAM
Smokes rises from U.S. air strikes near Mosul dam on Sunday. Ahmad Al-Ruhbye—AFP/Getty Images

But limiting strikes for political reasons may prove untenable

The Obama Administration made clear last week that its ban against U.S. “boots on the ground” inside Iraq only pertained to combat boots. Sunday, it went back to its dictionary and stretched the definition of “humanitarian” to include offensive bombing strikes against Islamist militants in northern Iraq.

That’s because ever since the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) seized the Mosul dam, it has had the power to release the reservoir behind it, turning the Tigris River downstream into Class V rapids with a 60-foot wall of water.

“The failure of the Mosul Dam could threaten the lives of large numbers of civilians, endanger U.S. personnel and facilities, including the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, and prevent the Iraqi government from providing critical services to the Iraqi populace,” President Barack Obama said in a letter to congressional leaders.

The U.S. military launched 23 airstrikes on ISIS targets over the weekend, including 14 on Sunday. A fleet of fighter-bombers, bombers and drones took out nearly 20 ISIS vehicles—mostly U.S.-built armor and Humvees that ISIS captured from retreating Iraqi forces—on Sunday alone. An Iraq military spokesman said Monday that Iraqi special forces and Kurdish fighters had regained control of the dam, although that claim has not been confirmed.

“These operations are limited in their nature, duration, and scope,” Obama said, “and are being undertaken in coordination with and at the request of the government of Iraq.”

The weekend air strikes nearly doubled the number the U.S. has launched in Iraq since they began Aug. 8, and marked the most coordinated military effort between U.S. and Iraqi forces since the U.S. military left the country in 2011.

Pentagon fingers are crossed that the combination of U.S. air strikes and Iraqi ground operations will be sufficient to defeat ISIS. Defense officials, and the White House, are acutely aware that the American public has no appetite for deeper involvement—military or otherwise—in Iraq.

The operation makes military sense, but justifying it using the original two-prong test—Obama said Aug. 7 that the U.S. would attack targets in Iraq only “to protect our American personnel, and… to help save thousands of Iraqi civilians who are trapped on a mountain without food and water and facing almost certain death”—may prove too convenient.

“This policy of not dealing with it as an ecosystem I think is wrong,” Michigan Republican Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told CBS on Sunday. “They have a long-term plan about where they’re going that would establish their caliphate from Beirut through Syria through Iraq.”

ISIS wants to create that caliphate from which it would seek to attack the U.S. and other targets in the west. Every time the Administration expands its military footprint in Iraq to deal with the threat—and justifies it on humanitarian grounds, or to protect U.S. personnel—it restrains its freedom to act the next time if stronger military action is required.

TIME Iraq

Kurdish Fighters Partially Retake Vital Iraqi Dam

Mideast Iraq
A Kurdish peshmerga fighter patrols near the Mosul Dam at the town of Chamibarakat outside Mosul, Iraq on Sunday, Aug. 17, 2014. Khalid Mohammed—AP

Peshmerga forces appear to have partially captured the Mosul Dam from Sunni extremists, with support from U.S. air strikes and Iraqi commandos

Kurdish forces pushed deeper into territory held by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) throughout Sunday and regained partial control over the strategically vital Mosul Dam as U.S. warplanes launched fresh sorties against the Sunni insurgents from the skies.

The U.S. Central Command confirmed that American aircraft launched at least 14 strikes against ISIS-manned armor, checkpoints and heavy weaponry positioned near the dam on the Tigris River in northern Iraq.

“These strikes were conducted under authority to support Iraqi security forces and Kurdish defense forces as they work together to combat [ISIS],” read a statement released by U.S. military officials. The aerial onslaught follows at least nine separate air strikes launched against ISIS positions earlier on Saturday.

It is seen as vital that the dam not be in ISIS hands, because the Sunni insurgents could either use it to choke off water supplies to the capital, Baghdad, and areas south of it, or they could destroy it and unleash catastrophic floods.

President Barack Obama authorized the use of American airpower against ISIS fighters on Aug. 8 following the group’s offensive blitz into Kurdish territory earlier this month. The strikes are the first such military incursion into Iraq since U.S. forces withdrew from the country in 2011 and were successful in alleviating the siege of Mount Sinjar.

However, analysts argue that U.S. involvement in Iraq may not be as limited as the Obama Administration hopes.

“For a President who wanted to leave [Iraq] and had the strong backing of his people, [Obama]’s now very much in Iraq, and I think the U.S. commitment and direct engagement in Iraq is going to be long term,” Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, tells TIME. “It’s not going to be easy to dislodge [ISIS], both militarily or even in the hearts and minds of Sunni Iraqis.”

Meanwhile, across the border in Syria, forces loyal to embattled President Bashar Assad launched their own strikes against ISIS’s stronghold in Raqqa.

The onslaught by the Syrian air force reportedly killed 31 militants along with eight civilians, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

“The regime wants to show the Americans that it is also capable of striking [ISIS],” Rami Abdel Rahman, the group’s director, told AFP.

ISIS forces currently control vast swaths of territory along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers spanning northeastern Syria across the border into western and northern Iraq. The group is currently fighting on multiple fronts against Kurdish militias, the Iraqi army, forces loyal to the Assad regime and opposition rebels in Syria in a bid to consolidate its self-declared Islamic caliphate.

TIME Iraq

Obama Authorizes Air Strikes in Iraq to Help Retake Dam

The U.S. is helping the Iraqi government reclaim the Mosul Dam

President Obama formally notified Congress on Sunday that he had authorized “limited” air strikes in Iraq to help the Iraqi Security Force combat the expansion of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).

National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden said in a statement that Obama’s authorizations, which were done at the request of the Iraqi government, were consistent with the War Powers Resolution, which mandates congressional approval before the President can push the country into war.

The air strikes in Iraq were meant to help the ISF re-establish control over the Mosul Dam, an important site in the battle against the Sunni militant group.

“The failure of the Mosul Dam could threaten the lives of large numbers of civilians, threaten U.S. personnel and facilities — including the U.S. embassy in Baghdad — and prevent the Iraqi government from providing critical services to the Iraqi populace,” the statement says.

ISIS control of the dam gives it the position to force a famine on the rest of the Iraq or cause massive flooding.

U.S. Central Command announced that it conducted 14 air strikes on Sunday, successfully damaging or destroying a number of ISIS vehicles as well as an ISIS checkpoint. Central Command had previously announced nine air strikes on Saturday.

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