Although the Iraqi city of Mosul is ancient, for most of its history it was overshadowed by the city of Ninevah, whose ruins lie near it on the eastern bank of the Tigris River. This goes some way toward explaining the diverse groups that call the country’s second largest city home: Arabs, Druze, Yazidis, Assyrians, Turkmen and others have long made for a dynamic, cosmopolitan community.
Although I’m always wary of anonymous sources, in the case of Mosuleye, a blogger or group of bloggers in the city, the writers’ description of life in Mosul before and after it fell to the so-called Islamic State (IS, ISIS, ISIL or, in Arabic, Daesh) and the dangers it now faces ring true:
“Some speak about Mosul as if it is a pure Sunni city, and with that, they grant a religious character to it, which is contrary to the historical and social facts. Because this city is characterized over long historical eras by patterns of harmonious coexistence of ethnic, religious, and cultural diversity, religion was never the predominant character of this diversity, but urbanization.”
Aleppo in Syria shares this kind of ethnic and religious diversity and also traces its origins back millenia. Once a vital part of the Silk Road that dominated trade in the known world until the rise of modern Europe, the city’s fortunes have waxed and waned for more than three thousand years.
Though these two cities are the target of similar sieges of mixed local and international forces, the conflicts surrounding them are being covered in very different ways by the mainstream Western press. The battle for Mosul is being portrayed as a heroic fight against the brutal Islamic State. The battle for Aleppo on the other hand, has often been reported on as Russian and Syrian government aggression against mainly civilian targets and ‘moderate’ rebels.
The Siege of Aleppo
An editorial by Max Fisher published in the New York Times at the end of September offered a few typical explanations of the strategy behind the Russian and Syrian bombing campaign in east Aleppo, citing unnamed experts: “Observers attribute Russia’s bombing to recklessness, cruelty or Moscow’s desperate thrashing in what the White House has called a quagmire,” or, “Russia and its Syrian government allies… could be massacring Aleppo’s civilians as part of a calculated strategy, aimed beyond this one city.”
The Syrian government along with Russia, Iran and various Shia militias, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah, have been fighting on and off to liberate east Aleppo from a variety of rebel groups for months. Chief among them is the former Jabhat al-Nusra, an affiliate of Al Qaeda, which is attempting to rebrand itself as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (The Front for the Conquest of the Levant). The hope seems to be that the new name will allow these religious extremists, many of them foreigners, to present themselves as a ‘moderate’ rebel faction along with other groups they lead as part of ‘The Army of Conquest’.
Part of this process is what seems to be a sophisticated propaganda campaign lionizing a group called the “White Helmets” who provide memes, photos and video from east Aleppo, usually in the aftermath of airstrikes. This group, ostensibly neutral, in actual fact only operates in opposition areas, including those under the control of Al Qaeda/Nusra.
The White Helmets reportedly received their training in ‘civil defense’ in Turkey under James Le Mercier, “a former British soldier and private contractor whose company is based in Dubai”. Although their origins have been the subject of a few stories in the alternative press, corporate media outlets have so far declined to investigate them.
This isn’t to say that the White Helmets don’t do some good work, just as the Syrian government’s own Civil Defense Forces and the Syrian Red Crescent do in other areas, but that their claim to neutrality doesn’t hold up under scrutiny and that the Western press, in publicizing them in almost rapturous terms, has led people to a one-sided view of the conflict..
And this isn’t the only way many journalists and pundits have been misinforming the Western public, especially in North America, about the battle for Aleppo and the wider war in Syria.
For example, most newspapers and cable news networks, along with politicians including Hillary Clinton, are claiming that there are between 250,000 and 300,000 civilians trapped in east Aleppo, yet a UK Guardian story from 2015 put the number at around 40,000 and it seems hard to believe that that many people would even be able, let alone want, to return to an area under siege.
While even one civilian trapped in East Aleppo at the mercy airstrikes and all the groups fighting for the area is one too many, exaggerating the numbers of them is the result of either laziness or lying. Some commentators have even claimed the whole city, up to two million people, is facing complete annihilation; a patently false assertion being used to demonize the Assad government and its allies.
The fact is, in the rest of Aleppo, which is controlled by Syria’s government, aside from rockets launched from the east, life goes on somewhat normally. The distinction between east Aleppo and Aleppo as a whole is seemingly too complicated a concept for many mainstream journalists.
There have been reports that humanitarian corridors created to allow people who want to flee have been fired on by rebel forces. This mirrors the treatment of fleeing civilians in areas controlled by IS in Iraq.
There are many reasons to criticize Syria’s government and its President, Bashar al-Assad. However, the country has long been one of the safest places for religious and ethnic minorities in the Middle East. To see what happens when multiple groups are set against each other with the participation of rivals and foreign powers we need only look at nearby Lebanon’s civil war in the 1970s and 80s, a conflict which still divides that country.
In terms of Russia, it can’t be denied that their behavior is not much different from that of the US and other NATO countries in multiple countries, most recently Syria, Libya and Mali. There is just one caveat regarding Russian involvement in the Syrian war: they were invited in by the internationally recognized government of the country, something the US, Turkey and other NATO countries cannot claim when their bombs fall within the country’s borders.
Although much of the Western media is ready to blame Assad alone for the unrest that broke out in Syria in 2011, the machinations of neighbors like Turkey, Israel and Saudi Arabia, along with a long drought which brought many people from rural areas to the country’s cities, are little remarked upon as contributing to the conflict.
The Battle for Mosul
Across the border in Mosul, the sheer number of groups involved in the fight against Islamic State, which itself broke off from Al Qaeda/Nusra at the beginning of the war in Syria and quickly took territory in that country and Iraq, puts roadblocks on the path to victory even more complicated than those created by the numerous factions fighting in Aleppo.
Iraqi forces and Kurdish peshmerga are entering the city of Mosul from the east. In the west, mainly Shia militias supported by the central government in Bagdad as well as ally Iran, are approaching the city and have promised not to enter it. These militias, called the Hashd al-Shaabi (People’s Mobilization Units), are passing through areas mostly populated by ethnic Turkmen.
The Turkish government has been training and giving aid to some of these Turkmen for most of the conflict, especially conservative Sunnis in the nearby town of Tal Afar. Turkish President Erdogan is also demanding a role in Mosul on the basis of the city and surrounding area’s historical connections to the Ottoman Empire. This has led to an angry back and forth between him and Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi.
This could mean further conflict in the region after the city falls, especially if Syrian Kurds are seen by Turkey as taking a role the area. While the country has decent relations with Iraqi Kurds under the neo-liberal regime of Masoud Barzani and his KDP Party in northern Iraq, they see the Syrian Kurds as enemies allied with Turkey’s largest Kurdish insurgent group the PKK, who have long opposed rule from Ankara.
Although it’s impossible to know now for sure, it seems likely that Mosul will not share the fate of Ramadi, another Iraqi city taken from the Islamic State that was, for all intents and purposes, destroyed during an earlier offensive by many of these same forces. Multiple sources have claimed there are fewer than 8,000 IS fighters left in the city and surrounding towns but the use of tunnels, suicide bombers and snipers could act as a force multiplier as Iraqi and other fighters converge in the city.
There are still estimated to be more than 1 million people living in Mosul, at least some of them ISIS sympathizers from other fallen strongholds. According to a Reuters report published on Tuesday, November 1st, although street fighting was taking place on the eastern edge of the city in other parts “traffic was relatively normal, markets were open, and Islamic State fighters were patrolling as usual.”
Cutting off a highway that could have acted as an escape route to IS’ capital across the border in Raqqa, Syria may mean that those who remain in Mosul will fight to the end, a process that could take months.When former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton briefly talked about Mosul at the 3rd and final debate, she said that when the city was taken it would be “on to Raqqa”.
One theory about the perceived rush to take Mosul while slowing down the Syrian government’s progress in Aleppo is that if forces allied to NATO get to Raqqa first and Clinton wins the US presidency, the city will be the centerpiece of the “no fly zone” the former Secretary of State has been promising throughout the campaign.
It should be remembered that both the war in Iraq and the intervention in Libya began with “no fly zones”. It’s hard to imagine that things could get worse in either of these cities (or countries), already torn apart by conflict but the record seems to show that these ‘no fly zones’ never go as planned. Still
Even more troubling in the near term, one has to wonder how these diverse communities are going to live together when the war is over. For example, how are Yazidis, brutalized and sold into sexual slavery by militants, going to view their Sunni neighbors, some of whom continued to live in IS areas relatively unmolested?
The prospect of future ethnic cleansing in both Mosul and Aleppo is very real which is why its so important to understand how the treatment of Sunnis in Iraq after the 2003 war directly led to the creation of both the Islamic State and Al Nusra. Funding from rich Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia to stir up trouble in Syria was just the icing on this destructive cake.
There should be plans in place to try and ensure that history doesn’t repeat itself in either country. Unfortunately, it seems likely that the experts will be too busy planning the next war to deal with the consequences of the long running humanitarian catastrophe in the Levant.