The horrific stories from Aleppo — the bombings of pediatric hospitals, the executions of fleeing women and children, the thousands of men disappeared or press-ganged into military service — have obscured something of a good news story unfolding just a couple of hundred miles away across the Syria-Iraq border, in Mosul.
Humanitarian agencies and human rights monitors say they have been shocked — in a good way — by the behavior of the U.S.-backed Iraqi forces that are slowly recapturing the city from the Islamic State. Elite counter-terrorism troops are moving street by street through tightly packed neighborhoods where hundreds of thousands of people are still living — only slightly more than 100,000 of Mosul’s more than 1 million people have fled to camps outside the city. Facing scores of suicide bombers, barrages of rockets and deadly snipers, the Iraqis are taking heavy casualties — so much so that the government protested when the United Nations reported that nearly 2,000 security force members were killed in November alone.
Yet so far at least, the invading force has sought to protect rather than slaughter the local population. There is no indiscriminate bombing or shelling of apartment buildings; no executions of women and children; no mass disappearances of men. In the camps, a majority of refugees are saying that their needs are mostly being met and that they are better off than they were under the Islamic State, according to a survey by the Norwegian Refugee Council. “It’s remarkable how well civilians have been treated,” says Belkis Wille, the Iraq researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Iraqi security forces are behaving well.”
This is not to say that civilians are not being harmed. The U.N. reported that nearly 900 were killed in and around Mosul in October and November. But most of the casualties have been inflicted by the Islamic State. In contrast, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says it has documented 19,000 killed and wounded in Aleppo since April, including 1,600 civilians killed by Russian and Syrian government airstrikes.
The Mosul difference may not last: The fight is an ugly one that could go on for months. For now, though, the world is witnessing two radically different models for the recapture of Arab cities. In Aleppo, there is the scorched-earth, indiscriminate-massacre paradigm of Russia, Iran and the regime of Bashar al-Assad; and in Mosul there is the civilian protection strategy embraced by the Iraqi government of Haidar al-Abadi under U.S. tutelage.
Several questions arise from this. Apart from the large savings in human lives, will the different strategies lead to different political outcomes? Will the humane treatment of Sunnis in Iraq create a chance for political reconciliation that Syria does not have? And will the disparity between Russian-Iranian brutality and U.S.-Iraqi humaneness make any difference to other Arab regimes, global opinion or, for that matter, incoming president Donald Trump?
In Iraq, it’s hard to be optimistic that the Shiite-led government will come to terms with the Sunni and Kurdish minorities after the Islamic State is defeated. A recent report by the Institute for the Study of War says a new Sunni insurgency could rise up after Mosul is recaptured, perhaps led by a revived version of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist movement, or by al-Qaeda. That’s because the military restraint of the Abadi government in Mosul has not been accompanied by meaningful political outreach to Sunni leaders.
Still, international monitors in Mosul see hopeful signs. The Norwegian Refugee Council said its interviews in the camps outside Mosul showed that the majority of displaced people were “upbeat” and “believed their families would live in comfort and safety in Iraq in the future.” A slight majority of respondents said they expected more conflict in Iraq rather than peace and security, but the council said that looked good compared with the “overwhelming consensus” on conflict it expected.
Wille says that the decent treatment of Mosul civilians “is reinforcing the belief of those just out of ISIS control that the state is indeed there to protect and care for them . . . which bodes better for the social contract going forward.” Mosul’s post-Islamic State leaders could have the leeway to work with the Abadi government without appearing traitorous to the locals.
Trump’s early decisions about the Middle East could reinforce or reverse the positive trend. Will he stick with the slow-but-humane strategy in Mosul, or will he demand that the city and its terrorist defenders be bombed, Putin style? Will he leave U.S. forces in Iraq after Mosul is recaptured, or withdraw and leave another vacuum for Iran or al-Qaeda? Will he join Russia’s scorched-earth campaign in Syria? The humanitarians quietly celebrating Mosul now have much to fear in the near future.
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