Current events constantly remind us of the horrors of urban warfare. Within the last month, we have seen repeated cases of urban battles in Syria highlighting the humanitarian concerns that accompany urban operations. My latest Horizons Blog Post, “The Urban Imperative: War, Terrorism, and Insecurity in Megacities” summarized the urban operations range of action. In this essay, I expand upon traditional urban war fighting, including aerial bombardment, and classic or traditional siege—bombing and besiegement.
Serial Siege and Bombardment in Syria
Syria has become the showcase for extreme war against a wide array of rebels, insurgents, terrorists, national militaries, police, and private military contractors. In addition to multiple, overlapping non-international armed conflicts, the participation of international military forces (Russia, Turkey, and a US-led coalition) has transformed the conflict to include an overlapping international armed conflict enhancing the responsibilities of all combatants under International Humanitarian Law (IHL).
Despite clear IHL responsibilities requiring protection for civilians, civilians are severely stressed by lack of distinction in targeting and protection of civilians. In Eastern Ghouta, a rebel-held enclave, several towns, suburbs of Damascus, have been subject to intense shelling and airstrikes killing over 1,000 and wounding 4,800 in two weeks and rendering Misraba, for instance, “a semi-destroyed rubble town.” The suburban enclave is effectively besieged. The Syrian forces accuse Al-Nusra rebels of using civilians as human shields, a charge they deny.
Sieges against cities are not fully prohibited under IHL, but their application is severely limited in order to protect civilians. For example, sieges must serve a military objective (which must be proportionate) and cannot lead to starvation of the civilian population under Customary IHL Rule 53. The nearly 900-day Siege of Leningrad and its toll of mass civilian starvation highlighted the horrors of siege in modern warfare. The humanitarian challenges presented daily in Syria include siege, aerial and artillery bombardment, and alleged use of chemical weapons.
Aerial bombardment in cities has a legacy of human suffering. From the Nazi and Fascist bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War just over 80 years ago to the firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo, through the Bombing of Aleppo and subsequent Syrian bombings, aerial bombardment has been recognized as having potentially catastrophic consequences for civilians. Artillery barrages are also recognized as having potentially indiscriminate effects. Indeed the combined effect of aerial bombardment, artillery shelling, urban street fighting, and the siege of Stalingrad arguably changed the face or at least the appreciation of modern war.
Despite a Security Council call for a ceasefire in Syria, combat continues, leading to shortages of food and water. Schools, medical facilities (including hospitals) have been destroyed, stressing the civilian population. At least 497 improvised barrel bombs have been dropped by Syrian regime forces in February 2018 alone, including 297 on Eastern Ghouta. These devices are potentially indiscriminate and have allegedly been deployed against civilian targets. In addition, there have been allegations that humanitarian aid has been blocked or denied in violation of Customary IHL Rule 55. War crimes, including the use of chemical weapons in order to make areas uninhabitable—effectively ethnic cleansing—are suspected.
Siege: Syria, Marawi and Beyond
According to the ICRC, urban warfare is decimating the ancient cities of Aleppo in Syria, Mosul in Iraq, and Taiz in Yemen. These cities are on the frontlines of contemporary urban combat. Aleppo was subject to 190 days of siege in 2016; Mosul faced intense street and house-by-house fighting; Taiz’s local economy was destroyed after being subjected to 15 months of siege. Raqqa, in Syria, added a subterranean dimension as ISIS fighters sought refuge from aerial bombardment in elaborately excavated underground warrens.
Infrastructural damage is another facet of contemporary siege warfare. Attacks on electric infrastructure, water supply, and transport amplify civilian suffering. Disease and epidemics can follow. The World Health Organization has observed that a cholera outbreak, with around 700,000 cases, is a consequence of conflict in Yemen.
Marawi in the Philippines became the scene of intense urban combat and siege in 2017, challenging the skill set of the Philippine military. The Philippine experience with insurgency had largely involved jungle fighting. The battle zone in Marawi involved weeks of heavy urban fighting, including close quarter battle, and trapped residents. Past Philippine urban operations, as seen for example in the Moro National Liberation Front’s Siege of Zamboanga City in 2013, had involved lightly constructed structures as opposed to hardened structures, which included tunnels in Marawi.
The Islamic State/IS-affiliated rebels in Marawi (Maute-IS) brought a new dimension to the fight. The five-month Siege of Marawi left over 1,100 dead amid accusations of war crimes. The Philippine military claims the rebels took refuge in mosques, took hostages to use as human shields, and used ‘rat-like’ tactics, including maneuvering in tunnels and sewers to prolong the conflict. As a result of this experience combined with fears that the dispersed Maute-IS rebels could regroup and wage another urban fight, the Philippine armed forces have been enhancing their urban operations capabilities.
Protecting civilian by balancing military necessity and humanitarian considerations (including respecting IHL) is a pressing need for both state and non-state forces involved in urban operations and combat. Airstrikes and bombs of all varieties present a severe risk of harm to civilians encumbered by urban combat. Civilians accounted for 70% of all deaths and injuries in civil conflict during 2016 and 45% of these were caused by IEDs. Beyond that, 95% of all casualties (that is, persons killed or injured) in populated areas are civilians.
This cries out for the exploration of mechanisms for limiting the use of wide-area effects from explosives of all types, including potential multilateral limits on the use of explosive weapons in urban areas under IHL and International Criminal Law (ICL). Until then, commanders must be reminded of their responsibility to reduce civilian harm. This will require additional training, intense intelligence preparation, consideration of alternate targeting timeframes, and selection of tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) - such as precision strike and targeting and direct fire as opposed to aerial bombardment - that are sensitive to civilian vulnerabilities.
Cities under siege and/or subjected to indiscriminate attacks with wide-area effects are perilous places for combatants. They are humanitarian traps or ‘bloodfields’ for civilians. Developing the legal regimes for protecting cities and their civilian residents from the effects of urban warfare is becoming increasingly necessary in modern conflict. This is not solely a military task. As seen in recent days, the Turkish force package for operations in Syria’s Afrin region includes police and gendarmerie forces to augment special operations elements in the urban operational space.
Commanders both military and police, and their staff, involved in urban operations must incorporate these considerations into their training, doctrine, and selection of TTPs suitable for the urban setting. This will require the development of both new legal protections and operational concepts. This goes beyond simply conducting joint training with other forces with urban operations experience. It will require developing a comprehensive framework including a concept of operations tested through red teaming and wargames, development of doctrine, assessment of intelligence preparation approaches, and coordination with civil authorities including police, civil defense, and humanitarian actors. I will next address urban terrorism and especially swarming and terrorist ‘urban siege’ attacks. As discussed in my introductory paper in this series, it will also require an understanding of the range of action common to all urban operations problem sets.