A Tale of Two Cities
Two great sieges are getting underway in the Middle East, one in Mosul in Iraq and the other in Aleppo in Syria. . They have a great deal in common, including the fact that the attackers both depend heavily on foreign air power, but they are treated by most international media as though they were completely different events. How similar they are will become clearer with the passage of time.
Sieges of cities, once a major part of warfare, grew rare in the course of the 20th century, mainly because of the rise of air power. You didn’t need to besiege cities any more, because you could just smash them to smithereens from the air: Guernica, Dresden, Hiroshima. But that’s not so easy in the era of instant global media coverage.
Seventy years without a really major war have allowed us to develop a major dislike for killing civilians from the air. Nobody on either side would have been the least bit reluctant to blast Aleppo or Mosul into oblivion in 1945 if it served their strategic purposes, but moral tastes have changed.
They haven’t changed that much, of course, or we would be seeing a horrified rejection of the entire concept of nuclear deterrence, which is based on the threat to extinguish millions or tens of millions of innocent civilian lives if the other side behaves too badly. But when the destruction from the air is piecemeal, with relatively small numbers of identifiable victims, we can get quite upset about it.
Every civilian death from bombing in Iraq and Syria – but not the thousands of other civilian casualties each month -- is therefore publicly catalogued and condemned.
The Russians are taking enormous criticism over their bombing of the rebel-held eastern part of Aleppo (although the indiscriminate “barrel bombs” are the work of the Syrian air force, not the Russians).
The US air force has been much more careful about its bombing around Mosul so far, but it too will end up having to choose between bombing the city heavily and seeing the Iraqi government’s attack fail.
Both Mosul and eastern Aleppo are Sunni Muslim cities facing an attempted reconquest by Shia-dominated national governments. In both cases the rebel fighters who control the besieged areas are jihadi extremists: Islamic State in Mosul, and the Nusra Front in eastern Aleppo. (In Aleppo, the jihadis number perhaps a thousand out of ten thousand fighters, but they dominate both the fighting and the decision-making.)
In both cases, too, the troops on the government side are divided by ethnic and sectarian differences, and largely unreliable. Which is why, in the end, government victory in both countries depends on foreign air power.
In Aleppo, the troops leading the attack on the ground are mostly Shia militias recruited from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan and paid for by Iran. Actual Syrian army troops have been decimated and exhausted by five years of war, and those who remain are being carefully husbanded. So they wait for the Russians to bomb the defenders to pieces, and just use the troops to mop up afterwards.
In the case of Mosul, the attacking forces are even more varied. The Iraqi government’s regular troops are mostly Shia, and the pro-government militias are entirely Shia and notorious for treating Sunnis badly. Since almost everybody left in Mosul is Sunni, they are terrified of the government’s troops.
The Iraqi govenment has therefore promised that Shia militias will not enter the city, nor will the Kurdish troops that are assisting in the early part of the offensive. What this means, however, is that very few soldiers will actually be fighting once the attack reaches the edge of the city proper.
There will be perhaps 25,000 Iraqi regular army troops in the final assault, of whom maybe half can be relied on to fight. There will be around 5,000 American troops in the area, but they are not allowed to engage in direct combat. And there are about 1,500 Turkish army troops who have been training a Sunni militia north of Mosul (but the government in Baghdad has ordered them to leave).
Islamic State’s five or six thousand fighters have had years to prepare their defences, and street fighting uses up attacking troops very fast. Even “precision” airstrikes in urban areas always mean lots of dead civilians, but central Mosul will not fall unless the United States uses its air force to dig the defenders out.
Even the current advance across relatively open country south and east of Mosul relies on the massive use of air power to keep the attackers’ casualties down. When the troops reach the city limits, the whole operation will stall unless the US government starts serious bombing in the built-up area.
If it does that, then the civilian casualties will be quite similar to those inflicted by the Russian air force in eastern Aleppo. But the Western media will doubtless still find ways to see a huge difference between the two.