What You Need to Know About Urban War

By Trevor Keck, Deputy Head of Communications & Congressional Affairs, ICRC

HOMS, SYRIA. A VIEW OF THE BADLY DAMAGED CENTER OF THE CITY. Photo credits: Pawel Krzysiek, ICRC
We have seen extraordinary suffering in urban wars in the Middle East in recent years. We have heard stories of people in besieged towns in Syria or Yemen, eating grass or garbage to stay alive. We have seen images of towns in Syria that harken back to World War II; cities decimated by airstrikes and artillery. We have seen sieges — an ancient form of warfare — make a comeback in Syria and Yemen, depriving people of the essentials they need to survive. And we see no end in sight to many of these devastating urban wars in the Middle East.

This article was first published on the ICRC Intercross blog.

“I Saw My City Die,” a new report released on 14 June 2017 captures the experience of civilians living in cities impacted by devastating urban wars in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. The report includes testimony from civilians in Mosul, Taiz and Aleppo — three cities that have been subject to intense fighting — as well as some powerful statistics that illustrate the deadly nature of urban war in the Middle East. Through some analysis of statistics, the report clearly shows that modern urban wars can be far more deadly for civilians than when wars take place in more rural areas. For instance, we found that:

1) Nearly half of all civilians killed in war between 2010–2015 perished in Syria, Iraq and Yemen

This is based on the “Global Burden of Armed Conflict 2015: Every Body Counts” report, produced by the Geneva Declaration Secretariat, a widely respected group that tracks and analyzes armed conflict trends. This report´s authors found a yearly average of around 90,000 global conflict related deaths during this time period. The data further revealed that 42,000 civilians (eg 47% of the total number of civilian war deaths) were killed on average each year due to conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

2) Civilians are five times more likely to die in urban offensives in Syria and Iraq

When wars reached cities in Iraq and Syria over the past three years, civilian deaths increased by an average of five times in the first month. This is based on qualitative data and analysis of battle trends in six governorates in Syria and Iraq between January 2014 and March 2017. We looked at publicly available data sources on civilian casualties in the Iraqi provinces of Anbar, Ninewah and Salahuddin and Syrian governorates of Aleppo, Deir Ezzor, Rif Damascus and Damascus between the dates mentioned. We found that — on average — there were five times more civilian deaths when offensives took hold in cities.

3) Wars in Cities Account for a Shocking 70% of Civilian Deaths in Syria and Iraq

Again, this is based on publicly available data for the same governorates above during the same time period.

Why are so many civilians harmed by urban battles in Syria, Iraq and Yemen?

There is a common problem of a general lack of respect for the basic rules of international humanitarian law (IHL) in these conflicts. This doesn’t mean that all parties to these conflicts are flouting the rules, but rather that many parties are not respecting the most basic rules. Civilians and civilian buildings such as hospitals and schools are being targeted. Ordinary people are being trapped in sieges. Constant care is not being taken to protect the civilian population.

We also see challenges specific to urban war. Aerial bombardment and heavy-artillery shelling of civilian areas are still standard features of modern warfare. This can be problematic in densely populated urban areas, as it can expose civilians to a heightened risk of harm. Cities are densely populated, and these types of explosive weapons have a large destructive radius. Civilians and critical infrastructure providing services that people rely on (eg water, electricity, sanitation, and hospitals) are often within the blast radius of artillery and aerial bombardments even when militaries are seeking to target military objectives.

The current cholera crisis in Yemen is a case in point. As our head of delegation in Yemen said yesterday, “the attacks on and lack of maintenance of the water and sewage systems in addition to the severe restrictions on the import of critical goods such as spare parts and fuel, have led to a situation where millions of people have no access to clean water.” In other words, attacks on the critical infrastructure that keeps water clean, process sewage and that helps treat people is partly to blame for this public health crisis.

What can be done?

We outline a number of topline recommendations in this report. Most of these recommendations relate to the need for better respect of the rules of IHL by those fighting wars in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, but also states supporting parties to armed conflicts in the Middle East. Common Article 1 of the Geneva Conventions requires that states take steps to “ensure respect” for IHL, including by exerting influence on belligerents that they may have influence over.

Some militaries also have experience in fighting urban wars, and there has been some “best practices” that relate to technical military procedures. Last fall, the ICRC and InterAction convened a group of experts from the US government, military, Congress and other humanitarian organizations to discuss both military practices for protecting civilians during urban battles, as well as how the humanitarian response could be improved.

This outcome document summarizes the lively discussion that took place. As explained above, explosive weapons, such as artillery or rockets, are likely to have indiscriminate effects on the civilian population when used in cities. As a result, we have urged belligerents to avoid using explosive weapons that have a wide impact area in densely populated areas. Some militaries have made decisions at times to avoid such weapons in cities in Afghanistan and other contexts.

Militaries also develop “no-strike lists” of civilian objects that are off-limits, or require significant scrutiny before a commander can order an attack. These lists typically include hospitals, electrical grids, and water infrastructure. Maintaining and respecting these lists is another practical way militaries can protect civilians and essential services that people in cities rely on.

The outcome document also discusses challenges to a robust humanitarian response in cities, and how that response could be improved, particularly as it relates to infrastructure. As this report highlights, one of the big challenges is maintaining and/repairing infrastructure in cities. Maintaining or repairing essential services such as water or sanitation systems often requires massive financial investments over a number of years. Flexible, multiyear funding from donors can help humanitarian agencies plan for multiyear upgrades of infrastructure, preventing service disruptions.

These reports help illustrate the humanitarian impact of urban warfare in the Middle East, the connections between these wars and the global migration crisis, and potential solutions to what we see as a new scale of urban suffering. With no political solution in sight to wars in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, we are likely to see the challenges of urban warfare continue in coming years.


You can read more about urban war in the latest issue of the International Review of the Red Cross. This year, the ICRC also organizes a war in cities conference cycle, a series of high-level public events and expert meetings in Geneva, abroad and online, bringing together key humanitarian actors and experts. By engaging with key actors, the ICRC aims to strengthen respect for IHL in urban armed conflicts, as well as stimulate research and innovation to better respond to urban needs. To be informed of upcoming conferences, subscribe to the ICRC’s Law and Policy Newsletter.

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