We are truly entering the world of the surreal. The BBC and other news outlets report in breathless tones how Iraqi government forces and Kurdish soldiers are entering Mosul to fight ISIS with American air cover, and possibly the support of the RAF. The Iraqi government has invited military support from the Americans and other Western powers.
Meanwhile the same news channels report that Syrian government forces and Iranian soldiers fighting Islamists in Aleppo with Russian air cover.The Syrian government has invited military support from the Russians and Iran. According to the British government, the Syrians and Russians are apparently committing war crimes by bombing an urban area.
Meanwhile the British government supplies planes and munitions to Saudi Arabia who bomb civilian areas in Yemen.
I have respect for consistent pacifists. I once asked Bruce Kent what the alternative to war is,for example in self defence, and he said “”the alternative is not to fight”. I don’t agree with this point of view but it is intellectually and morally consistent.
In practical terms, armed operations to defeat a determined and organised military force in an urban battlefield cannot avoid civilian casualties. The law is complicated, not least as both the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts are internal armed conflicts, where legally the Islamist forces are not soldiers of a belligerent power.
I am not an expert on the laws of war, though I have been trying read up on it to gain some understanding, but from what I gather, while it is illegal for those besieging Mosul and Aleppo to target civilians, it is not unlawful for them to target military assets where they anticipate proportionate civilian casualties. It is furthermore unlawful for the besieged forces to deliberately site their military assets so as to be using the population as a human shield.
As a question of fact, I don’t know whether the Islamist rebels in Aleppo,or iSIS in Mosul, have located their military forces close to civilian buildings. However, if they have, the choice given to the besieging forces is to either disengage their attack, or to calculate that the number of civilian casualties that it will consider proportionate has increased by the actions of the defending forces.
What is clear, is that peaceful and political solutions are to be preferred. The actions of the British government in seeking to raise the temperature with ill considered and reckless sabre rattling aimed at Russia are at very best unhelpful.