Column: Mosul and Aleppo, A tale of two cities

Column: Aleppo and the myth of Syria's sovereignty
Aftermath of Assad-Russian airstrikes on rebel-held areas of Aleppo, October 17

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 ISIS, while in Syria the eastern half of Aleppo remains cut off from the world and under fire.

Two urban military campaigns – both nominally aimed at defeating “terrorists” holding territory – are being conducted in vastly different manners. In Mosul, the US are seemingly steering an Iraqi military towards prioritising civilian protection in a battle that is being live streamed on social media with international journalists embedded with the advancing troops.

By contrast, in Aleppo, the Russian-supported Syrian regime campaign is characterised by siege tactics and overwhelming, and seemingly indiscriminate, bombardments.

In a sense we are soon to see the difference between the current Russian “counterterrorism” efforts in Aleppo and the American way of doing things in Mosul.

War crimes

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 criticised 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 [ISIS] 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.

A recent Russian-led “humanitarian pause” failed to evacuate a single injured civilian from the besieged east as it lacked both the coordination with humanitarian agencies, adequate time and trust of intent necessary to succeed. The hundreds of thousands of people who remain trapped in the city look warily at the news of the largest Russian navy deployment since the Cold War making its way towards them.

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.

While ISIS has adopted a scorched earth strategy – burning sulphur plants and trying to put as much smoke into the air to confuse coalition aircraft – the coalition appears to be adopting a more methodical approach to the battle. Clearing village by village, conscious that they are up against a smaller force but one that uses asymmetrical tactics such as suicide bombers and bobby-trapped buildings.

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.

Extreme risk

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 ISIS. 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.

James Denselow – al-Jazeera

The article resembles the author’s own views and doesn’t necessarily reflect MEO’s policy