By Margarita Konaev for Denver Dialogues.
On March 17th, a US airstrike killed nearly 300 people in the densely populated area of western Mosul. This deadly attack – along with other reports of mounting civilian casualties from US airstrikes in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen – are raising questions about whether the Trump administration has relaxed the rules of engagement.
Since entering office, President Trump has sought to reduce the constraints on the use of force imposed by his predecessor. For instance, he has designated parts of Yemen and Somalia as “areas of active hostilities,” giving the US military greater latitude to carry out airstrikes and ground raids. His new plan to defeat ISIS is also expected to include “recommended changes to any United States rules of engagement and other…policy restrictions that exceed the requirements of international law.” So far, both administration and military officials have denied that a formal change in the rules of engagement has taken place. But human rights groups are saying that even the perception of declining concerns over civilian deaths can have a “detrimental strategic impact” on the fight against ISIS, with dire humanitarian consequences.
Civilians bear the brunt of military operations in cities. And international humanitarian law compels the warring parties to take “feasible precautions” to avoid or minimize incidental loss of civilian life, injury, and damage to civilian objects. Intuitively, more restrictive rules of engagement – such as guidelines that require high-level vetting of targets, and delay or deny approval for strikes unless intelligence confirms that civilians will not be harmed – can help prevent civilian casualties. But does loosening the rules of engagement inevitably lead to increased civilian deaths?
The answer here is less than straightforward. Urban warfare necessitates decentralized, fast-paced, small-unit operations. And junior commanders capable of operating independently are essential. Insofar as relaxing the rules of engagement allows junior officers to use initiative, adaptability, and judgement, entrusting them with more authority can improve military effectiveness. This, in turn, could help minimize both friendly military casualties and civilians casualties. Naturally, there are both benefits and risks involved in restricting or relaxing the rules of engagement. The point here is that assessing the advantages and limitations of each approach requires a careful analysis of the multifaceted challenges to military operations in complex urban environments.
Unfortunately, even when the belligerents closely follow the rules of engagement designed to protect the civilian population, wartime civilian deaths are inevitable. Worse still, states and rebel groups often intentionally target and kill civilians when they believe it can help them achieve their political or military objectives. It’s worth noting that even for groups like Boko Haram, the Lord’s Resistance Army, and the Islamic State, infamous for their deliberate attacks on civilians that can seem wanton and senseless, targeting largely follows a strategic logic that evolves in response to a variety of factors, including government counterinsurgency tactics, fluctuations in the balance of power, declining public support, and loss of territory.
Taking a step back, what can research on civilian victimization tell us about why and when civilians are more likely to be targeted and killed in war? And can these insights help us understand the causes and dynamics of violence against civilians in urban warfare?
Several scholars argue that governments resort to killing large numbers of civilians in an effort to defeat large, well-organized guerrilla insurgencies. In the classic guerrilla setting of the mountainous hideout or the wild jungle, distance from the government’s center of power and rough terrain offer sanctuary for insurgents to train and develop. As these armed groups gain the support of the local population and establish control over territory, they can evolve into a serious military threat to the regime. Violence against civilians in (mostly rural) guerrilla wars is therefore largely the result of the type of warfare and the competition for control over territory.
This view, however, reflects an increasingly outdated understanding of modern insurgency. True, rural insurgencies have not vanished altogether. But looking at today’s conflicts, it is no accident that the emblematic names that come to mind are those of cities like Aleppo, Homs, Mosul, Gaza, Luhansk, Donetsk, and Sana’a. As David Kilcullen urges, it is “time to drag ourselves – body and mind – out of the mountains.” Here are two areas where research on civilian victimization can benefit from following Kilcullen’s advice.
First, while some of the non-state groups fighting in cities are increasingly using quasi-conventional military tactics and weapons such as antitank guided missiles and longer-range rockets, some of the most effective tools states employ in urban combat – such as Special Operation Forces and psychological warfare – resemble classic guerrilla tactics. Recent work demonstrates that warfare is connected to patterns of civilian victimization. But future research should reassess the utility of the conventional-guerrilla divide in identifying the causes of violence against civilians in urban warfare.
Second, the strong aversion to fighting in cities shared by most military strategists since Sun Tzu and the tremendously violent history of urban warfare suggest that civil wars scholarship highly overestimates the ease of fighting and winning in cities. Desperation to win in the face of mounting casualties in protracted wars can push states to target the civilian population of the enemy. Identifying the flawed or untested assumptions that underpin this faulty view is therefore critical for advancing research on civilian victimization in urban warfare.
Margarita Konaev is a post-doctoral fellow at the Perry World House, University of Pennsylvania.