By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Over the last year there have been periodic attempts to link the battles of Aleppo and Mosul as similar. A Recent headline: “Aleppo boy versus Mosul girl, how the Western MSMS peddles war propaganda,” writes Robert Bridge at Russia Today. Business-Standard.com asks “if Aleppo was a war crime, isn’t Mosul?” The Communist Party of Great Britain asked in December “Yet whilst the battle for Mosul is presented as a heroic war of liberation, the battle for Aleppo is treated exclusively as a humanitarian disaster.” Patrick Cockburn at The Independent also thinks that coverage in media has depicted the two similar battles between pro-government forces supported by foreign powers differently. Other articles have compared the two battles to contrast Washington’s policy.
Those who push the Aleppo and Mosul narrative tend to try to claim that the West is “hypocritical” because it excuses the bombing of civilians in Mosul while accusing Bashar al-Assad of being a brutal warmonger in Aleppo. They tend to claim that ISIS runs Mosul the way that Aleppo is “occupied” by extremists. “The struggle to liberate the eastern sector of Aleppo from occupation by al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra Front terrorists continues to make progress, despite the worst efforts of Syria’s enemies,” claims the Communist Party. Aleppo is “under the rule of extremist groups such as Ahrar al-Sham, Jahabat al Nusra, and Nour al-Din al-Zenki wasn’t pleasant either. These groups engaged in and continue to engage in widespread human rights abuses, persecute religious minorities, and implement draconian laws,” claims Business Standard. Their biggest claim is that the West has supported “the wholesale destruction of parts of the city [Mosul] by U.S. airpower” and that in both cases “sectarian” Shia militias are abusing the locals. Al-Jazeera said in October 2016; “Mosul in Iraq and Aleppo in Syria are cities held by armed groups, surrounded by avenging armies and bombarded by international air power. But with all the geopolitics in play, reporting from the field is seldom black and white.”
Peter Oborne wrote something similar at The Spectator. “the situations in Mosul and Aleppo are fundamentally identical. In both cases, forces loyal to an internationally recognised government are attacking well-populated cities, with the aid of foreign air power. These cities are under the control of armed groups or terrorists, who are holding a proportion of their population hostage.”
The comparison of the campaigns in each city seem to invite comparisons. Some have recently pointed to the rising civilian death toll in the battle for Mosul as evidence that the US is conducting a campaign similar to what Assad did. It is worth looking back at history and these claims.
Yes, the cities are similar, but
Before the war in Syria, Aleppo was the largest city in the country and the largest governorate. It had around 3 million people in it. It is an ancient city with thousands of years of history and has major archaeological sites, including the citadel. It was an economic powerhouse and also a diverse city with Kurds, Turkmen, Alawites, Shia and many Christians, including Armenians. According to the BBC it had the largest Christian population in Syria.
Mosul also had around 3 million people living in it before the war. Like Aleppo it is also an ancient crossroads of the Middle East and was an economic powerhouse of its country. Like Aleppo it was a diverse city with Arabs, Turkmen, Christians, Kurds, Shabaks and Yazidis. Like Aleppo it once had a Jewish minority as well. It also had important archaeology located at the ruins of Nineveh.
Both Mosul and Aleppo were center of Sunni power and learning. But there many of the similarities begin to end.
Conquering Mosul, contesting Aleppo
Mosul was a center of resistance after the fall of Saddam Hussein. His sons were killed in battle there. Mosul had provided the highest number of Ba’athist officers for Saddam’s forces. After 2003 it became a stronghold of Islamist extremists, including Al Qaeda and other insurgents. The US, Iraqi government troops and Kurds coordinated several times to try to tamp down on the violence. At the height of the insurgency there were daily attacks. There were also numerous attacks designed to make life for minorities in he city impossible, targeting Christians, Shabaks, Yazidis and Kurds. But the Sunni extremist insurgency in Mosul was irredentist in nature, it sought to reclaim the lost glory of the era before 2003 and re-assert Sunni Arab dominance in Iraq. It was a terror of a minority designed not only against the Baghdad government, which was Shia-dominated, but against minorities as well.
When ISIS arrived in Mosul in 2014 it was greeted as a kind of liberator, freeing the city from Nouri al-Maliki’s rule. The city’s defenses collapses quickly. Even some Moslawis who fled, returned, thinking life under ISIS would not be so bad. ISIS gave the Christian minority an ultimatum to convert or leave and 60,000 fled in July. This was unprecedented and it was accomplished because Iraq’s central authority had evaporated and ISIS was able to dominate the area around Mosul. In August when ISIS attacked Kurds and Yazidis, Mosul became a center of its crimes against humanity. Yazidi women were trafficked to the city and sold.These crimes were unspeakable and when authors claim the rule of Jihadists in Aleppo was similar they should read these accounts of women being separated, photographed and sold in Mosul.
ISIS conquered a Mosul whose population did not resist them and which even today, as ISIS is surrounded and about to be defeated, has not risen against them. ISIS run the city by itself with no competition. There was one extremist group, committing horrific crimes, running a massive city. ISIS declared war on every group around it, including Kurds, Shia, and Arab tribes that resisted. It participated in unprecedented ethnic cleansing. It’s capture of the city did not come after a time of civil protest against a dictatorship, but rather in he context of an Iraqi democracy in which ISIS and its supporters refused to accept that democracy. It refused to accept that Baghdad would be under the majority rule of Shia. Mosul was run by its own mayor and had its own Sunni politicians in Baghdad to represent it. Before ISIS arrived, whatever abuses Moslawis might have felt at the hands of Shia army or police, the reality was they had some freedoms, including freedoms of the press and on television. I spoke to Kurdish journalists who ran the Mosul bureau of their television station. They feared Sunni jihadist insurgents, but they didn’t fear the average people of Mosul and they were providing news coverage for them. Unlike Syria, where there was no free media, no elections, no civil protests, Mosul had its political space. ISIS rejected that space, it rejected diversity, it wanted to impose one extreme right wing Islamist view and it was greeted as liberators by people with experience of Iraqi semi-democracy who loathed the government in Baghdad and thought a militarist resurgence could bring them more than they had. This is a pure distinction with Aleppo, as will be shown. There was no demand in Mosul in 2014 for more equal democracy or for federalism and secession from Iraq or a “sunnistan” as some have suggested as a solution to Mosul’s predicament. ISIS didn’t represent a popular uprising against Shia majority rule, it represented only the black flag of totalitarianism and religious extremism.
In Aleppo the Syrian rebellion of 2011 began early on with protests against Assad’s dictatorship. In March 2011 BBC reported protests. In June mass protests returned and police responded with tear gas and other measures. In July the next year armed rebels seized police stations in the city, holding the eastern part which became a rebel stronghold. The increasingly Islamist rebels, such as Nusra Front, took more territory by December. In 2015 the mostly Islamist rebels were on the offensive to try to take the rest of it from the government.
In many ways Aleppo became symbolic of the Syrian revolution in general. It began as a popular uprising against decades of dictatorial rule by the Assad family. However by 2012 it had already taken a problematic turn as the more liberal and more ostensibly secular parts of the Free Syrian Army had become fragmented and weaker than the Islamist groups such as Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham. The Syrian civil war in general became a hugely fragmented rebellion, with dozens of groups making up ever-changing coalitions. The rebels were backed by a variety of sympathetic players, including the US, Turkey and Gulf States, but also NGOs from Europe and sympathetic media. However by late 2012 many journalists were already being harassed and kidnapped. In 2013 so many journalists were kidnapped, they stopped coming and some of them were sold to ISIS which beheaded them.
But the reality in Aleppo was it was never a black and white conflict. The 160,000 Christians in the city fled rebel-held areas because of abuses by Islamists. But Aleppo was never ruled by one Islamist black-flag. The rebel groups were always a multiplicity. Kurds held on to a small neighborhood in Aleppo as well, serving under the YPG militia. Assad’s forces also subjected eastern Aleppo to relentless aerial bombardment, including some 13,000 “barrel bombs” destroying 60 percent of the city. This was a contested city throughout the war, unlike Mosul which was held by ISIS up until October 2016 when the Mosul offensive began. Aleppo suffered six years of war. Hospitals were frequently a target of bombardment.
It is hard to give the Syrian air force or its Russian allies the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the bombing of Aleppo. This is especially true of the Syrian regime. To compare its bombing of Aleppo from 2012-2016 to the bombing of Mosul after October 2016 purposely ignores the targeting of civilians and harm done to them in Aleppo by the regime. The US-led coalition (CJTF:OIR) has published weekly data on its airstrikes against ISIS and much of the information about its 68 member coalition is public. A recent statement noted that it has used 18,179 munitions since the beginning of the Mosul offensive, destroying 216 VBIEDs, 574 buildings/facilities, 186 tunnels, 632 vehicles and more than 600 bunkers. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence that US or coalition forces targeted hospitals in Mosul or that they did massive purposeful damage to the city. That is different than what happened in Ramadi where the Iraqi forces were accused of destroying 80% of the city. However the reality is that the US government is more transparent than the Russian military and Baghdad is more transparent than Damascus. There is an anti-American myth that the US is involved in “imperialism” and somehow doing the “same” thing, but the reality is far from that. That doesn’t mean the US doesn’t bomb civilians and drone civilians. It does from time to time. In recent weeks there have been accusations of the US killing numerous civilians in Iraq and Syria in airstrikes. But to suggest that is the policy of the US avoids the reality of an America that investigates incidents such as the Kundoz hospital bombing. Does Moscow investigate such things? Does Damascus?
Pretending that Assad and Abadi are the same misleads about them
The claim that the war in Mosul and Aleppo is similar because it involves sectarian militias alongside pro-government forces aided by a foreign power is misleading. The government in Baghdad may be many things, but it is not a thirty year family-run dictatorship. It is more like a dysfunctional, strange, democracy. Baghdad has huge protests, such as those held by Muqtada al-Sadr. It has a multi-party parliament that includes Kurds, Arabs and different religions. It may be true that Nouri al-Maliki was heavy handed and that police were involved in abuses, but there are differences between a country that is riven by sectarianism and has chaos and terror and abuses, and a country like Syria before 2011 that was a top-down dictatorship, 100% dictatorship with control of the media and banning of any protests and jailing of dissidents and denying of citizenship to groups such as the Kurds. Syria resembles more Iraq before 2003, but the regime does not resemble the Baghdad government.
The allegation that the government forces work alongside sectarian militias has some merit in looking at Baghdad’s campaign to retake places like Ramadi alongside groups such as the Hashd al-Sha’abi (PMU). But the battle for Mosul has purposely tamped down on the sectarian elements. Shia flags have been kept off the ICTF and Federal police vehicles and the PMU has remained West of the city. Is there any evidence that Russia sought to encourage Assad to keep his Iranian-backed and Hezbollah militias away from the fighting?
Yes, Mosul is being liberated, is Aleppo?
We don’t have accurate surveys and polls from the people of Aleppo and Mosul. However the battle against ISIS is a pure liberation of Mosul from the clutches of a dark regime. That doesn’t mean the people of Mosul all feel liberated. Some Germans, probably most, did not greet the Red Army as liberators from Hitler, and might have preferred to stay under Nazism. But the fact that local people support extremism does not mean defeating extremism is not an act of liberation. The ethnic-cleansing of Mosul’s minorities, destruction of its museums, and the desire to return government authority to it, and democracy to it eventually, is a worthwhile goal. ISIS should not be the only choice for Mosul residents. That doesn’t mean the PMU are liberators of Mosul, or that Mosul residents want them. But Mosul residents surely should have a choice of multi-party democracy. They might deserve federalism and to be free of direct rule from Baghdad. But ISIS didn’t bring that. It brought them destruction and privation.
We can assume that the civil protests and popular uprising of 2011 in Aleppo consisted of a diverse group who opposed the Assad regime. They wanted a form of democracy and more representation. Their demands were met by beatings and bullets. Six years later it is true that the rebellion is led by extreme elements, including groups like Al Qaeda. Those groups don’t promise any more freedom than Assad. But that doesn’t mean Assad is liberating them. He is offering them one dictatorship or another. There is no third way. There is no supposition that when the battle dies down there will be elections in Aleppo and multiple parties and different media. But when the smoke clears in Mosul there will be. Sunnis who fled ISIS, including members of parliament and those like the Nujaifis and their Hashd al-Watani, will return to Mosul and Mosul will have choices again. It was have different newspapers and television stations. Will Aleppans have that? Can they return to Aleppo? Can they return without threat of persecution? But those who are critical of Abadi can return to Mosul. There are voices critical of Maliki and Abadi in Erbil and other parts of Iraq. There are no voices critical of Assad in government-run areas of Syria. In Iraq there are differing Shia parties and groups, including Badr, Sadr, and others. They are not all the same and they are not all run from the top-down by one family that runs the country.
To just pretend that Baghdad and Damascus are the same and Russia and US policies are identical is to be purposely blind to what actually happens on the ground. It is to ignore the reality of the Syrian rebellion. The majority of Syria is Sunni Arabs, the minority of Iraq is Sunni Arabs. The Syrian rebellion represented a protest and then armed rebellion against decades of rule by one party, one family. ISIS doesn’t represent that. It represented an attempt to force a totalitarian Islamist movement on part of Iraq and massacre and genocide everyone else. Part of the Syrian rebellion engaged in suppression of people, including brutal beheadings and murders not dissimilar from ISIS, but they were not the entire rebellion. It may not be fair to pretend that they were merely a perversion of it, because people did support the brutal Islamification. But many people had no choice. In Syria around 12 million people were made homeless by the war, whole cities razed. That was the governments way of dealing with rebellion. In Iraq the result of the rise of ISIS was also destruction of cities, but that was mostly the choice of ISIS brutality, not government forces. That doesn’t mean Iraq’s forces or militias didn’t engage in abuses or that Sunni residents feel comfortable returning. In many cases they do not and remain IDPs and refugees as Syrians do. But Sunnis have more of a chance to live in a post-ISIS Iraq than former rebel supporters do in post rebellion Syria. That is because when Mosul is liberated it will return to a semblance of normality as it enjoyed before the war, although its minorities may never return. Syria will return to a semblance of “normality” also if its regime can re-conquer the whole country, but its normality is one party-one, family dictatorship with no room for opposition. Iraq’s “normality” is a chaotic multi-ethnic multi-religious state with numerous parties and no strong ruler.
An agenda to whitewash Assad
The main agenda behind many of those who claim the battle for Mosul is similar to that of Aleppo is to whitewash the crimes of Assad, excuse them and reduce them. These claims seek to turn six years of Assad brutality and hundreds of thousands of deaths (many of them civilians) into the “same” as hundreds of civilian deaths, perhaps thousands, at the hands of the US-led coalition in Iraq. The reality is these comparisons are not meant to merely make the US effort in Iraq seem worse than it is, but it is primarily aimed at making Assad look better than he is. The comparisons seek to reduce the Syrian rebellion only to “Al Qaeda” and pretend that it is the “same” as ISIS, when the reality is that it is not. It also seeks to pretend Assad is “liberating” Syria when the opposite is true.
If the comparison was only designed to encourage Iraq’s army and the US-led coalition to harm less civilians, that would be a good thing. Generally that is not the case. Because if it were the case then the logical follow-up of the argument would say, ok let’s say they are the same, then what will happen after the “liberation” of Aleppo? Will there be elections and multi-party democracy, and freedom of the press? Already in the liberated areas of Mosul the people are able to speak more freely than people do in Assad’s Aleppo. The method of the battle of Mosul has almost no resemblance to how Assad conducted his war and the result of the battle of Mosul will have no resemblance to what will become of Aleppo. There are a few point of comparison, civilian casualties, sectarian militias, the role of Islamists, but they are the exception, not the rule in the battle for Mosul. They are the rule in the battle for Aleppo, not the exception.
Aleppo and Mosul as symbols
The reality of course is that neither Iraq or Syria will be the same and Aleppo and Mosul are symbols of that. Aleppo was badly ruined and depopulated by the war. Syria will remain divided, millions of its people will not come home. Will it ever reconquer the areas in the north around Idlib or Jarabulus where mostly Islamist rebels still hold power. Will it ever get the Kurdish parts to re-enter the fold? The Islamist terror will likely continue.
Iraq’s minorities such as Yazidis have suffered genocide and ISIS leaves the country more divided than before. Kurds have gained a bit more independence in their stable area of the KRG. The PMU has been integrated into the Iraqi army, which in the long term makes Iraq more openly sectarian than before 2014 when such militias were not part of the state. Both countries will limp along, divided as they are, like Lebanon is. The tragedy of Aleppo and Mosul are reversed. In Mosul ISIS was the real tragedy, reshaping the city. In Aleppo the regime was the real tragedy. To pretend they are the same reverses historical truth.