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Mosul and Aleppo: A tale of two sieges

Justin Glyn |  24 October 2016


This is a tale of two cities. Both are, in whole or in part, occupied by militants holding to an extremist reading of Salafist Islam which gives no space to other faiths or opposing voices.

Gun trained on MosulIn both cases, the defenders are using civilians as human shields and preventing them from leaving in the breaks granted by the besieging forces. Both are under attack by the internationally recognised governments of the countries in which they are situated and in both cases those governments have sought, and received, assistance from foreign governments in taking their countries back.

In both cases, civilians are suffering. In both cases, however, the narratives in the west are wildly different.

In Mosul in Northern Iraq, the 'goodies' (as the former Prime Minister might say), in the form of the Iraqi government aided by the US and its allies, are laying down a withering air and artillery bombardment to cover their entry into a frightened city held by Daesh (IS) using civilians as hostages.

The western media are cheering their advance and breathlessly awaiting the imminent liberation of the city and vindication of Iraqi sovereignty. The 'baddies' are either on the defensive or, as some reports suggest, using the corridor left to them by the besiegers to flee to ...

... Syria, where in Eastern Aleppo, the besieged are a mixture of Al Nusra (Al Qaida) and other like-minded militant groups, and the besiegers are members of the Syrian Arab Army, backed by Hezbollah, Iran and, most significantly, Russia. (One, unfulfilled, condition of the recent, short-lived, truce was that the US was to let the Russians know which 'moderate' rebels not to bomb.)

Here the media coverage, as Patrick Cockburn points out, is exactly the reverse. The Syrians, like the besiegers in Mosul, have left humanitarian corridors open for civilians to flee. The rebels (as in Mosul) have no interest in losing their 'human interest' cover and so very few were allowed to leave.

Yet here, as Stephen F. Cohen, the US professor of Russian history, notes, those who brought down the World Trade Centre to kick off the great War on Terror are now magically transformed into the heroic rebels, fighting the evil regime.


"It may be that all of the involved parties have already carved out spheres of interest which they will eventually be allowed to occupy relatively undisturbed after sufficient 'collateral damage' and bloodletting among their proxies."


In a final touch of irony, the Saudis and their Gulf-state allies (funders of ISIS and other Syrian rebels), fresh from multiple bombings of funerals and hospitals in their own ongoing US-backed war in Yemen, have led the UK and others in the UN Human Rights Council in condemning Russian war crimes in Aleppo.

Adding to this blood-soaked debacle, there are other lethal games in town. The Kurds of Syria and Iraq are (with good reason) not best pleased with either Daesh or their respective governments and would like their own state, which they have created in all but name in Northern Iraq. Enter NATO member President Erdogan of Turkey, who is fighting the American-backed Kurds (sometimes alongside Daesh forces) in Northern Syria and Iraq and viscerally loathes the Turkish Kurds. He now appears to have claimed both Mosul AND Aleppo for Turkey, backing this up with significant military incursions into both countries.

Recreating Ottoman glories could, however, come at a price since it will likely involve double-crossing the Russians (again) or his NATO allies (again). NATO's reaction to the military coup against Erdogan earlier this year was lukewarm to put it mildly. As a result Turkey has been working hard to mend fences with Russia after Russian anger at a Turkish shoot-down of one of their bombers last year. In addition, both Damascus and Baghdad have (so far impotently) objected to the Turkish occupation of both countries.

Of course the fog of war is everywhere and looking through all sides' propaganda from a distance of 8000 miles is no easy task. Such is the way of diplomacy that it may be that all of the involved parties have already carved out spheres of interest which they will eventually be allowed to occupy relatively undisturbed after sufficient 'collateral damage' and bloodletting among their proxies. Great power military negotiations tend to look like a cross between Guernica and House of Cards at the best of times, and civilians are usually ignored (save as unwitting props for the cameras).

If this interlocking set of horrors teaches any lessons though, it should be to accept media narratives with caution. Proxy wars are usually bloody, often fruitless and very costly — especially to those on the ground who must live through them. There are usually few, if any, 'goodies' except those who must eke out an existence beneath the drones, shells and bombs. Pray for Syria and Iraq and their people caught up in their nightmares — but be very careful what you believe.


Justin GlynFr Justin Glyn SJ is studying canon law in Canada. Previously he practised law in South Africa and New Zealand and has a PhD in administrative and international law.



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Submitted comments

Just brilliant, deserves wide circulation. And every word is true. Thank you, Justin Glyn.

Tony Kevin 26 October 2016

I think, after the (never) final fall of the dice Syria will end up mostly united under Bashar al Assad, whose father ruled as dictator before him. The non-Sunni minority in Syria know that any Muslim regime - or the sort able to gain and hold power - would not be their friend. The largest group of Christians in Syria are members of The Orthodox Church of Antioch - a sister church of the Russian Orthodox Church whose Patriarch Kyril has spoken out on their behalf. I think he's even visited Damascus. Many Syrians studied in Moscow and many Russian women married Syrians (mostly Orthodox). Russia is not going to allow Russian women to be raped by the bad laddies of Daesh/Isis or Al Nusra rebranded. The Western press usually buckets Putin - not a nice man - but forgets that Russia is now a Christian nation again. With its volatile Muslim southern flank Russia sees its action in Syria, apart from enlightened self-interest, as protecting fellow Orthodox Christians. Russia and Iran are de facto allies against Sunni Turkey. They could destroy Turkey if they act together. "Sultan" Erdogan needs to watch his back (and front). His Saudi allies will be unable to assist if there is another Kemalist coup.

Edward Fido 26 October 2016

"There is nothing either right or wrong, but thinking makes it so.", as Hamlet said. Or was it Shakespeare? Or perhaps Christopher Marlowe? Our hearts go out to the potential refugees in Aleppo and Mosul. We can spend millions of $ dropping bombs on those who would harm them. But if any of the oppressed show up in boats seeking sanctuary, we will spend more millions abusing them to deter others from seeking our help.

Robert Liddy 26 October 2016

Excellent article, Justin, you have very eloquently expressed what I have thought about the ways the battles in these cites is being reported. Thank you.

Pat McArthur 26 October 2016

Robert Liddy has said it all, brilliantly encapsulating Australia's indefensible position on refugees who arrive by boat.

Ian Fraser 27 October 2016

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