A tale of two cities
Yassamine Mather contrasts media coverage of Mosul and East Aleppo
Kurdish forces advance on Mosul
According to the respected journalist Patrick Cockburn, "Compare the coverage of Mosul and East Aleppo and it tells you a lot about the propaganda we consume. In both Syria and Iraq two large Sunni Arab urban centres - East Aleppo in Syria and Mosul in Iraq - are being besieged by pro-government forces strongly supported by foreign airpower. In East Aleppo, some 250,000 civilians and 8,000 insurgents are under attack by the Syrian Army allied to Shia paramilitaries from Iran, Iraq and Lebanon and supported by the Russian and Syrian air forces."
The bombing of East Aleppo has rightly caused worldwide revulsion and condemnations. But look at how differently the international media is treating a similar situation in Mosul, 300 miles east of Aleppo, where one million people and an estimated 5,000 Isis fighters are being encircled by the Iraqi army fighting alongside Kurdish Peshmerga and Shia and Sunni paramilitaries and with massive support from a US-led air campaign. In the case of Mosul, unlike Aleppo, the defenders are to blame for endangering civilians by using them as human shields and preventing them leaving. In East Aleppo, fortunately, there are no human shields - though the UN says that half the civilian population wants to depart - but simply innocent victims of Russian savagery.1
If anyone had any doubts about how current reporting from the Middle East has degenerated into a complete distortion of the facts, the observations by this veteran reporter of the region should shed some light. Clearly Russian bombs only kill innocent civilians and children, while those dropped by the US and its allies accurately target Islamic State jihadists.
It would be a miracle if the kind of US attacks on Mosul we have seen this week had caused no civilian casualties. The Russians, keen to score points, claim that a US air raid near the city on October 21 killed 60 Iraqi civilians and left 200 injured. When Pentagon officials were asked by the International Business Times to comment on the claim, their response was:
Rubbish. Russian propaganda intended to deflect attention from their indiscriminate killing of civilians in Aleppo. We’ve seen several instances like this recently, as Russia reacts to the growing international consensus that their actions in Aleppo are indefensible.2
The reality is, the wars in the Middle East have entered a dangerous phase and it is civilians who are paying the price. The governments of the United States, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Jordan are all directly involved in battles in Iraq or Syria that are causing major civilian casualties - and, of course, American and Russian air raids are equally deplorable.
There has been speculation that IS would not fight to hold Mosul (in the US some argued that, in the last weeks of the presidential campaign, this was going to be Obama’s gift to Clinton). However, so far the fierce fighting in the suburbs seems to point to the opposite conclusion. Iraqi special forces and Kurdish groups are facing heavy casualties. And no-one in their right mind can imagine that the ensuing street-to-street battles will not cost the lives of many thousands of civilians, but we are supposed to believe that such ‘collateral damage’ is acceptable: don’t forget, the target is Islamic State. Totally unlike in East Aleppo, where Syrian and Russian troops - despite fighting the acceptable face of jihadism, the rebranded Al Nusra - are the real murderers of civilians.
And there is an even more sinister reason why we are supposed to support air raids in Mosul and oppose them in Aleppo. The US and its allies are determined to move IS to Syria, and Raqqa in particular. Why ? Because, for all the talk of fighting IS, the imperialist powers and their regional allies, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates of the Persian Gulf, are obsessed with the overthrow of Assad and weakening his allies in the Lebanese Hezbollah and Iran’s Islamic Republic.
As Robert Fisk reminds us,
Syria’s army and Hezbollah and Iranian allies are preparing for a massive invasion by thousands of Isis fighters, who will be driven out of Iraq when Mosul falls. The real purpose behind the much-trumpeted US-planned ‘liberation’ of the Iraqi city, the Syrian military suspect, is to swamp Syria with the hordes of Isis fighters who will flee their Iraqi capital in favour of their ‘mini-capital’ of Raqqa inside Syria itself ... If Mosul falls, the entire Isis caliphate army could be directed against the Assad government and its allies - a scenario which might cause some satisfaction in Washington. When the Iraqi city of Fallujah fell to Iraqi army and militia forces earlier this year, many Isis fighters fled at once to Syria.3
The accusations, repeated by the Lebanese Hezbollah, are clear: just at a time when Islamic State is losing ground against Assad and the Russians, there is a deliberate policy to push it out of Iraq and into Syria, as if that country did not have enough problems. According to the Syrian secret service (let me stress, not the most reliable source of information), in some Iraq-Syria border towns, such as Hasaka, IS fighters are installing new electricity and water supplies in the expectation that large numbers of fighters will join them from Mosul. So, as a result of this cynical, deceitful move, we can expect more fighting in Syria between the two offshoots of al Qa’eda: Islamic State and Al Nusra (or, should I say, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham - formerly known as Al Nusra, but now branded the ‘Support Front for the People of the Levant’).
There have been reports of a number of IS tactics - not quite the easy target predicted by the west:
- l Wanton violence and the massacre of opponents. According to Rupert Colville, UN human rights spokesman, on October 23 IS executed 50 ex-police officers in a building just outside Mosul. Colville claims: “Iraqi security forces found the bodies of 70 civilians in the village of Tuloul Naser south of Mosul, while in the village of Safina, 45 kilometres south of Mosul, 15 civilians were murdered, with their bodies thrown into the river to intimidate the population.”4
- l Taking the fighting to other Kurdish cities. Earlier in the week IS targeted the Iraqi Kurdish city of Kirkuk. Around 100 fighters and suicide bombers, including some who apparently had lived in Kirkuk for months, tried to take control of major government and security buildings. According to the Iraqi Kurdish government, 98 people, mostly civilians, were killed. IS is also said to have struck in Rutba and the Sinjar region to the west of Mosul.
- l Building tunnels. There are widespread rumours that there is now an extensive network of tunnels under Mosul and that these have been used in the last few days by IS forces to ambush advancing Iraqi and Kurdish troops.
- l The use of suicide attacks. Iraqi and Kurdish forces advancing towards Mosul have been hampered by car bombs driven by suicide bombers.
- l Using civilians as ‘human shields’. Iraqi forces estimate there are 5,000 IS fighters in and around Mosul. The population was more than a million when the jihadists took control of the city and, although some civilians have escaped, hundreds of thousands remain. According to humanitarian organisations, at least 200,000 are in immediate danger as a result of the fighting in and around the city. The humanitarian disaster in Mosul is potentially far worse than the current battle in the eastern suburbs of Aleppo - but do not let truth get in the way of western propaganda.
- l Burning oilfields. There is another rather disturbing story emerging, concerning the disastrous environmental effects of the fire and smoke coming from the oilfields set on fire by IS, which are also causing serious health problems: “It is like poison,” one man said. “You feel sick all the time, it gets in your nose, your lungs, on your skin, everywhere.” Middle Eastern media have carried pictures of sheep that have turned dark grey from the smoke. Mothers talk of “children who are constantly coughing.”5
Of course, the battle for Mosul has also opened new and old wounds. Tensions between Turkey and Iraq have intensified after Turkey said its troops fired artillery rounds at IS targets near Mosul, following a request by Kurdish Peshmerga forces. According to the Turkish premier, Binali Yıldırım, Turkish troops stationed outside the city had provided support “with artillery, tanks and howitzers”. This claim was, however, denied by Iraq’s joint-operations command.
Yet Turkish authorities are not giving up. According to the country’s foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, Turkish artillery fire has killed 17 IS fighters since the battle began and four Turkish F-16 fighter jets have been on standby.6 Iraqi Kurds and Turkey, who at times have been allies, are clearly giving contradictory information about Turkish involvement in Mosul.
None of this stopped The Guardian publishing what could only be described as a misleading headline on October 24: “Turkish and Kurdish soldiers join forces to gain advantage in Mosul push.” Not quite true, according to the Iraqi Kurdish regional authority, although the battle for Mosul has also laid bare another conflict - the one between Turkey and the pro-Iranian Shia government in Baghdad.
There is nothing new in the confrontation between Iraqi rulers and the Turkish government. However, this time their battle is not just about Mosul. In recent weeks Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has taken to criticising the Lausanne deal, signed after the fall of the Ottoman empire, and blaming it for Turkey’s current ‘insecure’ borders, which mean that Turkish minorities living beyond the country’s “current borders” are in danger.
It seems that there is real ambition to regain territory in what was the Ottoman empire, and this includes Mosul. No wonder Baghdad is concerned. Clearly the Iranian government is not taking the claims seriously, yet Erdoğan’s territorial claims are not a joke. On the ruins created by the wars of the last 13 years, megalomaniacs such as Erdoğan - not forgetting the increasingly mad ruler of Iran’s Islamic Republic, ayatollah Ali Khamenei - are pursuing their own dangerous expansionist plans.
However, in the current economic climate, neither Iran nor Turkey is in a position to gain any advantage from the chaotic situation in the region. The publication in Ankara of expansionist maps from the days of the Ottoman empire are mainly for internal consumption and those on the left (whether in Europe or among the plethora of small Iranian groups) who take such claims seriously are either in the pay of imperialism, deluded - or both
1. The Independent October 23.