The devastating toll from coalition bombing

UNRWA photo Yarmouk Camp DamascusOn 29 December 2015, the Iraqi military “liberated” the city of Ramadi, in Iraq, from the so-called Islamic State (ISIS, or ISIL) in an “epic” victory after a long offensive to retake the provincial capital from the terrorist group.

In a televised press conference, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi praised the capture of the city, saying that “2016 will be the year of the big and final victory, when Daesh’s [IS’s] presence in Iraq will be terminated.”

The battle of Ramadi fits into the broader campaign aimed at defeating the Islamic State. Canada joined the international anti-ISIL coalition—led by the United States—in early 2014, and has been conducting targeted airstrikes alongside other allies and partners since October 2014. These strikes continue despite a Liberal campaign promise to end Canada’s participation in the air campaign.  Foreign Minister Dion recently explained that the government wished to have “no gap” between the end of Canada’s role in the bombing and the start of its new plan of military and possibly police training and other efforts, soon to be unveiled to the Canadian public.

In a speech delivered on January 13, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said military efforts in Iraq and Syria are bearing fruit. But what does “victory” really look like? BBC journalist Thomas Fessy describes the scene not long after the recapture of Ramadi:

Driving through Ramadi is a ride through the remains of a city ravaged by war. This [is] a place that has suffered over a decade of sporadic conflict, but the week-long battle against so-called Islamic State has destroyed the urban landscape… this is a city that has been sacrificed in battle.

In his speech, the U.S. Secretary of Defense affirms that the coalition against the Islamic State is clearing the battlefield with “precision strikes.” Since the battle for Ramadi began in July 2015, the U.S.-led coalition has conducted over 600 of those “precision airstrikes” in and around the city.  As a result, 80% of the city has been destroyed. Once home to 400,000 people, Ramadi is now a ghost city. Only a few inhabitants returned after the battle—because there is simply nothing to return to. Homes were burnt down, schools destroyed, and although most of the 1,000 ISIS fighters that were present in Ramadi were killed in the airstrikes, roughly 30 percent of the city remained under ISIS control, according to U.S. military officials. Many civilians have died in the airstrikes too, they said, but they could not confirm the exact numbers.

And the future is not very promising. According to estimates, rebuilding the city of Ramadi would cost $12 billion. This is a huge amount considering that the United States and its allies have only pledged $50 million to a United Nations fund for reconstruction in Iraq. “This is money no one has,” deplores Tom Engelhardt, author and Fellow at The Nation Institute. And “that’s only a single destroyed community.” The earlier victories at Kobane and Sinjar in Syria, also supported by U.S. airstrikes, destroyed those cities in a similar fashion.

Despite the horrific human and material costs, the United States’ strategy going forward is to conduct military operations similar to the one that led to the Ramadi “victory”. “When we see something that works, we look for ways to do more of it,” said U.S. Secretary of Defense Carter in his speech. The United States aims specifically at defeating ISIS in Raqqah and Mosul, two power bases of IS in Syria and Iraq. Fallujah is the other major IS-controlled city in Anbar province that is targeted.

Retaking Mosul, however, will pose a huge challenge to the coalition. It will likely require twice the forces that were involved in retaking Ramadi. The city, which had a population of around 2 million people before ISIS took control of it, still has a large number of civilians who could be killed in the airstrikes. U.S.’ “precision airstrikes” will thus be much more difficult to conduct in Mosul than in Ramadi, and a possible “victory” raises serious concerns about the toll of human casualties this will likely generate.

The result of such a strategy is entirely predictable, says Engelhardt. Iraq will have far fewer habitable cities and a far larger number of displaced persons without any meaningful means of existence.

Can any of us begin to imagine what will emerge from such ruins?


Image credit: UNRWA
(We do not have a picture of Ramadi to post. This is Damascus, where the bombing by Assad produces similar results and has been widely condemned.)

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