Chicago Tribune: Avoiding another Aleppo: Islamic State, US air power and civilian lives

By Chicago Tribune

MARCH 31, 2017 — A frantic search for any signs of life amid a broken building flattened by an airstrike. Stacks of bodies in bags. Rescuers crouched in the rubble, faces dust-caked and dazed.

It sounds like Aleppo, the Syrian city half-obliterated by airstrikes from Russian and Syrian fighter jets. Bombs rained down day after day — legions of innocent men, women and children were killed or maimed. But this venue is different. It’s Mosul, the northern Iraqi city still clung to by Islamic State. The dead are Iraqi civilians, and their relatives and neighbors are blaming America for destruction in the Jadidah neighborhood that killed more than 100.

The Pentagon is investigating whether a March 17 airstrike is responsible for the deaths. Iraqi officials have suggested Islamic State militants booby-trapped the building. But on Tuesday, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the general heading up the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, said American-led forces likely were responsible: “If we did it, and I would say there’s at least a fair chance that we did, it was an unintentional accident of war.” It is also possible, Townsend added, that the airstrike set off explosives placed in or around the building by militants.

U.S. air power will continue to help local ground forces retake sections of Iraq and Syria held by Islamic State. Bombing erodes the group’s footprint, while staving off the need for American troops to get involved in direct combat. But use of that air power has to be deftly calibrated — with sound, reliable intelligence to back up targeting and a rock-solid sense for where pockets of civilians are located.

In Aleppo, the world saw what indiscriminate bombing does. Hundreds of civilians were killed in Russian and Syrian government strikes. As a result, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar Assad aren’t seen as liberators. To the survivors of Aleppo — and much of the rest of the world — they’re brutish thugs.

The Trump administration needs a war plan that defeats Islamic State but minimizes the toll on civilians. While U.S. generals say the rules of engagement in Syria and Iraq haven’t changed under the Trump administration, an Iraqi special forces intelligence officer told The New York Times after the March 17 U.S. airstrike in Mosul that Iraqi requests for U.S. airstrikes are getting fulfilled much faster than they had before. “There used to be a delay,” said Gen. Ali Jamil, “or no response sometimes, on the excuse of checking the location or looking for civilians.”

Islamic State’s presence in Iraq has now been largely atomized into the western half of Mosul. It took 3 { months for Iraqi troops, backed by U.S. special operations forces, to capture the city’s eastern half. The presence of so many civilians led Iraqi forces to take a more measured, methodical approach, relying less on air power and artillery to safeguard as many civilians as possible. It took longer, but much of that part of the city has remained intact, and Iraqis there are getting back to their everyday lives.

That approach in the east should serve as a template for President Donald Trump and Iraqi leader Haider al-Abadi in now dealing with the city’s western half. Mosul has a large population of Sunni Muslims, and a scenario in which Sunnis bore the brunt of the civilian toll would make it hard for Baghdad’s Shiite-led government to govern postwar Mosul, and give Islamic State more propaganda to lure recruits.

How to safeguard civilians in Mosul is one of many hurdles Trump faces in forging a strategy to defeat Islamic State. What is that strategy? He has yet to say.

Specifically, what’s his plan for ousting Islamic State from its de facto capital in Syria, Raqqa? The best way to do that is to supply armored vehicles, rocket launchers and machine guns to the Syrian Kurds, fighters with a good track record for retaking territory in Syria. The brick wall in that plan is Turkey, which regards the Kurdish fighters as terrorists and adamantly opposes arming them. Can Trump broker a deal with Ankara that appeases Turkey and keeps the Kurds involved in the Raqqa offensive?

Even after Islamic State is defeated on the battlefield, the U.S. and its allies must ensure that places the group once held stay free. That means securing those areas and governing them in a way that doesn’t make people susceptible to another round of radicalization. In Iraq’s Sunni-dominant areas once held by Islamic State, that means ensuring a role in governance for Sunnis who until now have been marginalized by Baghdad’s Shiite leaders. And even with defeat in Syria and Iraq, Islamic State will remain a potent enemy through its online capability to inspire lone wolf attacks. What’s the administration’s plan for undermining Islamic State’s cyberpropaganda?

Trump’s overall strategy has to reach well beyond exhortations to “demolish and destroy.” If the bombing in Mosul’s Jadidah neighborhood is what it appears to be, that strategy should include tighter controls to protect civilian lives.

By Chicago Tribune

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