Anyone casting their mind back to the Western media’s reporting of the battle to liberate eastern Aleppo from the Al-Qaeda led Jihadis in the second half of last year will remember the vivid reporting of supposed Russian and Syrian government atrocities the Western media and Western governments engaged in during the battle.
Thus the Russians and the Syrians were accused of terror bombings of civilians, of deliberately bombing hospitals, with the Syrians specifically accused of ‘barrel-bombing’ ie. of dropping inaccurate improvised home made bombs to kill civilians.
This vast campaign led to heated debates in the UN Security Council, two passionate debates in the British parliament with calls for British military intervention against Syrian and Russia, a refusal by President Hollande of France to meet with President Putin of Russia during a meeting that Putin planned to make to France – and which he accordingly cancelled – and claims that the Russians were committing war crimes in Syria and in Aleppo, and to demands for prosecutions of Russian officials for war crimes.
The UN Secretariat for its part threw its weight behind this campaign, repeatedly calling for ceasefires in Aleppo that appeared to be intended to leave the Jihadis in control of eastern Aleppo, and for humanitarian convoys to be sent to eastern Aleppo, whose effect if not whose purpose would be to resupply the Jihadis there.
The Russians for their part repeatedly agreed to temporary ceasefires and bombing halts, and repeatedly left what they called ‘humanitarian corridors’ open to allow civilians from the besieged districts and Jihadi fighters to leave eastern Aleppo and for UN humanitarian convoys to enter eastern Aleppo.
In the event, until the final collapse of Jihadi resistance in eastern Aleppo in December, very few Jihadi fighters and civilians did in fact leave eastern Aleppo via these humanitarian corridors, and very few humanitarian supplies ever got through.
Western governments and the Western blame placed the blame for this squarely on the Syrian government, alleging that the Jihadi fighters and civilians were too terrified of reprisals by the Syrian government’s security agencies to dare to leave the besieged eastern districts of the city or to trust the Syrian authorities’ guarantees of safe conduct, and that it was the Syrian authorities who were preventing humanitarian supplies from getting through.
Meanwhile the Syrian rescue group – the White Helmets – were given an inordinate amount of favourable publicity, culminating eventually in a documentary about them which has recently been awarded an Oscar.
Lastly, the population of the besieged districts of eastern Aleppo was throughout the summer and autumn repeatedly said – including by the UN Secretariat and its relief agencies – to number 250,000, with this vast number supposedly collectively facing a humanitarian catastrophe.
During the period of the siege I repeatedly made known my doubts about many of these atrocity stories.
I could never see for example the purpose behind the Russians and the Syrians bombing hospitals, and the claims that they were looked to me like war propaganda.
I was seriously concerned that Western governments and the Western media were suppressing information about who was actually in control of eastern Aleppo, though the fact that the dominant group there was Jabhat Al-Nusra – Al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch – hardly seemed contestable.
I was worried that all the claims of Russian and Syrian government atrocities in eastern Aleppo originated entirely from groups controlled by or sympathetic to Al-Qaeda – including the White Helmets – since there were and (because of the nature of these groups) could be no Western journalists present in eastern Aleppo to verify them independently.
I was also concerned that Western governments and the Western media seemed to be largely ignoring reports of atrocities committed by the Al-Qaeda led Jihadis in eastern Aleppo, such as the fact that they appeared to be preventing civilians from leaving the besieged eastern districts of Aleppo so that they could use them as human shields, and regularly murdered civilians who sought to escape from there.
Last but by no means least, I was troubled that Western governments and the Western media seemed to conflate the besieged Jihadi controlled eastern districts of Aleppo with the whole city of Aleppo, ignoring the fact that even if the claim that 250,000 civilians were trapped in eastern Aleppo was true, it would only represent a fraction of Aleppo’s total population, the great bulk of whom were in the government controlled areas and appeared to support the government.
The collapse of Jihadi resistance in eastern Aleppo proved that some at least of the claims made by Western governments and the Western media during the siege were untrue.
It turned out for example that the number of civilians trapped in eastern Aleppo was far less than the 250,000 that was claimed, and that most of them seized the opportunity to flee to the government controlled areas of western Aleppo as soon as Al-Qaeda’s control of the besieged eastern districts of Aleppo weakened.
As for the Jihadi fighters themselves, they were evacuated from eastern Aleppo together with their families and any civilians who wanted to go with them, as the result of an agreement with the Syrian government which was brokered by Russia and Turkey, without the mass reprisals against them and their families and the civilians fleeing with them – which many claimed would happen – taking place.
Since the end of the siege Aleppo has been largely peaceful, with little sign of resistance by its people against the Syrian government, and with increasing signs of life in the city slowly returning to normal, though the task of reconstruction is colossal.
Perhaps the most encouraging sign of all is that there are growing reports of increasing numbers of people who had fled the city during the war returning there, with the UN reporting that as many 500,000 people who had fled Syria during the war returning there in the last few months.
As for evidence to support some of the specific atrocity claims made during the siege, such as the claims about the deliberate bombing of hospitals, this has been hard to find, and since the end of the siege Western governments and the Western media seem to have lost interest in the matter.
Having said all this, there is of course no doubt that huge damage was done to Aleppo during the battle and that many civilians were killed and wounded there, though who was responsible for any specific death or damage is never easy to say.
What is however truly fascinating is to compare what happened in eastern Aleppo last year with what has happened in Mosul last year and this.
Rather than describe it myself I will reproduce one of the many accounts of the devastation of Mosul which have been provided by an actual eyewitness, the British journalist Patrick Cockburn, in my opinion and in the opinion of many other people the single best Western reporter of the recent wars in the Middle East
The people of Mosul got rid of Isis, but at terrible cost to themselves. Great stretches of west Mosul lie in ruins, some areas so badly hit that it is impossible to even visit them because the streets are choked with debris. I was in al-Jadida district where local people all complained that there had never been many Isis fighters, but, whenever a sniper fired a shot from a large building, the troops on the ground would call in airstrikes to demolish it.
One aspect of the war does not come across in much of the media reporting. It is clear, looking at wrecked streets towards the centre of the city, that much of the damage has been caused not by airstrikes, but by artillery and rocket fire that have knocked chunks out of buildings in a haphazard way. One can see the artillery of the Federal Police, a paramilitary force, near the airport road to the south of Mosul. Much of the bombardment of west Mosul, as opposed to the east, was in the shape of shells and rockets fired in the general direction of the enemy rather than at specific targets.
Nobody knows how many people were killed, but, talking to survivors, the number must be very large. One unconfirmed report says that civil defence workers have already pulled 2,000 bodies from the rubble. The Airwars monitoring group says that 5,805 civilians may have died in west Mosul between 19 February and 19 June. The authorities may not be trying to very hard to find out the true figure: one observer caustically noted that hundreds of planes, drones and artillery pieces were mobilised to bombard Mosul, but, on one day last week, only a single bulldozer could be found to aid the search for bodies buried under the ruins of the Old City.
The horrific civilian loss of life is explained in part by the merciless determination of Isis to prevent civilians from escaping and depriving them of human shields. Isis snipers shot people who tried to flee and Isis officials welded shut the metal doors of houses with people packed inside. It is difficult to think of any other example of a siege in which civilians have been herded together like this to deter air or artillery attack.
There is a compelling and meticulous account by Amnesty International of the bombardment called At Any Cost: The Civilian Catastrophe in West Mosul. Out of thousands of attacks in west Mosul, it investigates and documented 45 attacks that “it had reasonable grounds to attribute to Iraqi government or US-led coalition forces. These 45 attacks alone killed at least 426 civilians and injured more than 100.” The report should be read by everybody interested in why so many died in west Mosul.
“Pro-government forces relied heavily upon explosive weapons with wide area effects such as IRAMs (Improvised Rocket Assisted Munitions),” it says. “With their crude targeting abilities, these weapons wreaked havoc in densely populated west Mosul, where large groups of civilians were trapped in homes or makeshift shelters.” This is important because the government officials and the western media sometimes contrast the indiscriminate Russian and Syrian government bombardment of East Aleppo with the accurate and discriminating Coalition backed assault on west Mosul.
The crass response of the leaders of the US-led coalition who orchestrated the attack on west Mosul is telling and shows that we are back in the Vietnam era when American officers were happy to volunteer that they were destroying populated areas in order to save them.
What is fascinating about this account is how it echoes almost exactly many of accusations made against the Syrian government and the Russians during the fighting in eastern Aleppo.
Thus we read of massive and indiscriminate shelling and bombing of civilian areas and general indifference by the Iraqi and US authorities to the plight of civilians, thousands of whom as a result have been killed.
We also read of patterns of behaviour by the ISIS fighters in Mosul which seem in all respects identical to those claimed by the Syrians and the Russians for those of the Al-Qaeda led Jihadi fighters in eastern Aleppo.
Thus both the ISIS fighters in Mosul and the Al-Qaeda led Jihadi fighters in eastern Aleppo are accused of treating civilians as human shields, preventing them from quitting Mosul and eastern Aleppo, and murdering them in both cases if they attempted to do so.
Given the fanatical ideology of both groups, which is so similar as to be all but identical, that is not surprising.
There are however some verifiable differences in the conduct of the two battles.
Unlike the Syrians and the Russians, the Iraqis and the US never to my knowledge at any point during the fighting in Mosul declared any bombing halts or ceasefires – ‘humanitarian pauses’ – or set up any ‘humanitarian corridors’ to allow civilians and ISIS fighters to flee the city.
The Russians also deny that they ever actually carried out any air strikes on eastern Aleppo, saying that such air strikes as took place there were strictly the work of the Syrian military, and were largely carried out by helicopters.
In a sense therefore Iraqi and US conduct of the battle of Mosul was more ruthless than was that of the Syrians and the Russians during the battle of eastern Aleppo.
The biggest difference is however the completely different ways that Western governments and the Western media have responded to the two battles.
Unlike what happened during the battle of eastern Aleppo, the battle of Mosul has provoked no heated debates in the UN Security Council, no passionate debates in the British parliament, no refusal by President Macron of France to meet with President Trump of the US – on the contrary they have just had a friendly meeting in France – and no claims of the US committing war crimes in Iraq and in Mosul, and no demands for prosecutions of US officials accused of committing these war crimes.
As for the Western media, its reporting of the devastation of Mosul has been relatively scant, in no way approaching the indignant saturation coverage given to the battle of Aleppo last year, with the blame for the devastation laid squarely on ISIS, and with barely any criticism of US conduct at all.
At this point I will make my own position clear: though I am prepared to accept that US and Iraqi conduct of the battle of Mosul is open to severe criticism, I also think that the primary blame for the devastation of Mosul and for the death and suffering of civilians there rests with ISIS.
The same however was equally – or still more – true of the battle of Aleppo last year: the primary blame for the devastation of eastern Aleppo and for the death and suffering of the civilians there rests with Al-Qaeda and the Al-Qaeda led Jihadis who until last year where in occupation of Aleppo’s eastern districts.
It cannot be said sufficiently strongly, or repeated sufficiently often, that Al-Qaeda and ISIS are both fanatical and murderous terrorist organisations, utterly heedless of human life in a way that has not been seen since the defeat of the Khmer Rouge. When confronting two such completely ruthless organisations massive suffering and devastation is unavoidable if great population centres like eastern Aleppo and Mosul are to be freed from their control.
For this reason, and despite all the criticisms which are being made of the conduct of both sieges, I consider both eastern Aleppo and Mosul liberated territories, and I unequivocally welcome the defeat of Al-Qaeda and ISIS in both places.
What is shocking is that those who recognise this truth in one place – Mosul – pretend to be blind to it in another – Aleppo.
I say “pretend” because I do not believe that those many people in Western governments and the Western media who waxed so indignant about the conduct of the Syrians and the Russians in Aleppo last year are really blind to the truth of it in both places.
Doing so however is not just an offence against reason and truth.
Those who engage in these games of selective indignation, whether because they adhere to some grand geopolitical strategy or because of some visceral hatred they have for Russia, should understand that it is not principally the US and the Iraqis whose conduct in Mosul that they are making excuses for.
Those whose conduct they are principally excusing and defending are Al-Qaeda, which along with ISIS is the organisation which is directly responsible for most of the death and destruction which has happened over the course of the Syrian war.