On 17 October, Iraqi forces, Kurdish Peshmerga, and Shia militants launched their offensive to recapture the city of Mosul, Iraq, which has been under Islamic State (IS) control since June 2014. War strategy and tactics aside, this offensive will have devastating consequences for the 1.5 million civilians caught in the crossfire.
In a chilling prediction of the devastation to come, the International Rescue Committee’s country director for Iraq warned that the Battle for Mosul could “be the worst humanitarian crisis – excluding genocide – since Rwanda”.
While security strategists assess the possibilities of an IS victory or defeat, aid agencies are struggling to prepare for an exodus of at least 1 million people from the city of Mosul. What then, are the human implications of the Battle for Mosul, and how can civilians escape the devastating costs of war?
If the offensive to recapture the city of Fallujah is any indication, then the people of Mosul will most likely face destruction and suffering on an even larger scale. The predictions of the Mosul offensive are sobering. Indeed, the symbolic and strategic significance of Mosul to all parties of the conflict means that the offensive will be prolonged, intense, and detrimental to the civilian population. Direct concerns for civilian safety include the shelling, airstrikes, and the use of human shields. There has also been speculation that IS may use chemical weapons against the people of Mosul, thereby adding another count to its list of war crimes committed.
Alongside the immediate threat posed by urban warfare, food supplies are dwindling, and medicine is becoming increasingly inaccessible. That the Battle for Mosul might endure for several months is an alarming prediction for the people trapped within the city. Speaking to Al Jazeera, Alun McDonald of Save the Children stated, “If they stay put inside the city, they risk being killed in the crossfire or bombed, and trapped without aid… If they try to flee, they risk being killed by snipers or landmines planted around the city.”
The strategists behind the offensive have yet to consider the ways in which the Battle for Mosul will ultimately prove disastrous for civilians who will – if not immediately – then eventually, risk death or displacement. For those that stay in Mosul, a largely Sunni city, the possibility of reprisal killings by Shia militants entering is highly concerning. For those that do flee the city, the humanitarian system simply does not have the capacity to assist 200,000 people, let alone the estimated 1 million residents that will flee Mosul. This failure represents a lack of political will to respond to the impending humanitarian crisis.
How can the lives of civilians in Mosul be safeguarded?
Firstly, all parties to the conflict must reconsider their current combative approach, to ensure that Mosul does not become another city leveled through warfare. However, as the Battle deepens, and Iraqi and Peshmerga forces reach the outskirts of Mosul, this option is increasingly unlikely. The determination to defeat IS has prevented Iraqi forces from guaranteeing the safety of civilians.
Indeed, while it is never too late to change course, all parties must ensure they uphold the Geneva Conventions and respect human dignity. At a bare minimum, safe corridors are imperative to allow civilians to escape the violence. However, as it stands, even this necessity is unlikely in a battle so symbolic; it risks pursuing a victory at all costs. The people of Mosul will experience the full force of suffering in a conflict that has no clear end in sight.
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