The Iraqi army and its allies have today begun their long-anticipated offensive to retake the city of Mosul from Islamic State control. It is likely to be long and bloody. The conduct of the battle, and the help provided to families caught up in the fighting, will determine whether victory comes at an unacceptable humanitarian cost. With an estimated 600,000 children trapped in the city the Iraqi government and their partners, including the UK armed forces, have a responsibility to ensure civilians are kept safe whether they stay or flee.
The backdrop is not promising. The advance of the Iraqi army along the Mosul corridor has been punctuated by bombardments of civilian areas. Recent weeks have seen a growing exodus of people from IS-controlled territory, with around 150,000 people fleeing. Having dodged snipers and evaded IS checkpoints, many are living without food, shelter and the most rudimentary humanitarian support.
Save the Children’s staff are already hearing harrowing stories from families as they arrive from IS areas. Aid workers at a reception centre in Hayakal, south of the town of Hawija, said children are turning up barefoot, hungry and severely dehydrated after a gruelling 36 hour trek along a route crisscrossed with Improvised Explosive Devices and patrolled by militants. A number of parents have lost children along the way.
There is a real and very present danger that the battle for Mosul will become another tragic episode in the region’s descent into barbaric wars. Most of the civilian population in Mosul live in the old city on the west bank of the Tigris, the poorest part. Without safe routes out of the city, these children are at risk of getting caught in the crossfire.
Comparisons with the siege of Aleppo are inevitable. If the Iraqi military adopt the tactics deployed by Russia and Syria, using artillery and air strikes to reduce eastern Mosul to rubble, the body count of children and civilians will be enormous. And there are other dangers on the ground. Fighting between different armed groups and abuses against the population are possible. The way Mosul’s civilians, who have suffered so much under more than two years of IS-occupation, are treated during the offensive will have long-term implications for the future of Iraq and the stability of the region.
The humanitarian fallout from the offensive could be the biggest crisis we deal with this year. UN agencies predict that as many as 1.2 million people could be displaced. This is in a country where some 3.4 million have fled their homes since 2014. Yet only half of the UN emergency $284m appeal for Mosul has been delivered. It is difficult to imagine a starker example of failed international cooperation.
There are many uncertainties over the course of military events that will unfold in Mosul. What is certain is that those escaping the conflict will require support and protection. At Save the Children we are urgently gearing up to respond — our aim is to deploy emergency supplies within 12-72 hours in locations agreed with the UN, and to provide proper care for children. But without increased financial support, humanitarian agencies cannot deliver on the scale that will be required.
Beyond the humanitarian needs, it is clear that what happens in Mosul in the coming weeks will have a far wider significance for the region and the world. Over recent years the international community has stood by, watched and wrung its hands while powerful actors violate the human rights of children and other civilians with impunity. In Aleppo, hundreds of children have been killed or injured in recent weeks as hospitals and schools are bombed, and there are reports of chemical weapons used against civilians.
Mosul provides an opportunity to stop the war on civilians and reassert international humanitarian and human rights law. Indiscriminate attacks on schools, hospitals and children are not just a morally despicable stain on humanity. They are also war crimes and violations of human rights enshrined in the Geneva Convention and UN provisions on the protection of children in conflict. Vulnerable people and families on the move must be protected.
Responsibility for upholding international law rests with the Iraqi authorities. Capturing Mosul with judicious application of force, with respect for human rights, and care for civilians would go a long way to helping build a new Iraq.
The wider international community also has a role to play. Military advisers from the US and Britain have played a pivotal role in supporting the Iraqi army and should use their influence to identify military tactics that adhere to international law.
Earlier this month the UK’s Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, used his speech at the Conservative Party conference to set out a compelling case for deploying Britain’s “soft power” in defence of the values enshrined in the UN Charter. Mosul offers a chance to turn words into action.
Kevin Watkins is the CEO of Save the Children