Even by the standards of a war-weary Middle East, there is an exceptional amount of urban violence currently in play in the region. In Iraq, the city of Mosul is heading for a final showdown between the Iraqi state and ISIL, while in Syria the eastern half of Aleppo remains cut off from the world and under fire.
Meanwhile both Moscow and Washington have accused each other of war crimes. US Secretary of State John Kerry said ‘crimes against humanity’ were taking place every day in Aleppo, while the Russians have criticized US-led operations in Iraq, claiming that ‘far too often, weddings, funeral processions, hospitals, police posts and humanitarian convoys are targeted by the coalition’.
Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad has promised to ‘clean’ Aleppo, while Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has said that ‘we will defeat [ISIL] whilst protecting our people. This is our priority.’
UN human rights chief Zeid Raad al-Hussein has described the Syrian city of Aleppo as a ‘slaughterhouse‘. Last week 14 members of one family died in a single air strike on the city.
The conflict in Syria has seen a steady escalation in the types of weaponry deployed - from small arms to Scud missiles, bunker-busting bombs that threaten underground schools and hospitals and, of course, the repeated use of chemical weapons. Short of the use of biological and nuclear weapons, Syria has seen the full spectrum of human destructiveness and Aleppo is currently in the centre of the storm.
Meanwhile, the Mosul operation is supported by some 4,800 US troops who are in Iraq, including more than 100 US special operations forces operating with Iraqi units.
According to Human Rights Watch, Iraqi authorities have been calling on residents in and around Mosul to stay at home throughout the fighting and signal their civilian status by placing white flags atop their homes.
UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien has warned that ‘families are at extreme risk of being caught in crossfire or targeted by snipers. Tens of thousands of Iraqi girls, boys, women and men may be under siege or held as human shields‘.
The military operation for Mosul is backed up by humanitarian preparations for a variety of scenarios that could play out. The UK, for example, is deploying some $17.1m in aid as part of a wider strategy ‘to support the Iraqi government to retake the city in a way that protects civilians, minimises the humanitarian impact and helps stabilise the country‘.
However, big questions remain as to whether adequate resources and willpower exist when it comes to civilian protection.
Indeed, some warn of a double standard at play in the coverage of the two battles. The Independent’s Patrick Cockburn wrote that both cities are being ‘besieged by pro-government forces strongly supported by foreign air power. Yet the coverage is very different.‘
Cockburn’s scepticism is partly driven by the huge destruction wrought in previous Iraqi operations against ISIL. Ramadi, where 80 percent of the buildings were destroyed in fighting, has also seen issues around residents being denied the right to return to the city.
For all the talk over a more judicious use of heavy artillery and air power as well as the better deployment of intelligence assets and monitoring of targets, the proof will be seen only when battle is closed at the heart of Mosul.
Both Aleppo and Mosul face the larger question as to what political compact will follow the military operations. After all, despite the role of foreign actors they are essentially civil conflicts between or at least involving a majority of their own nationals. These compacts will be influenced by the manner of the fighting and the legacy it leaves, and this is where the greatest difference in the two approaches could manifest itself.
The article has been excerpted from: ‘Mosul and Aleppo: A tale of two cities’.