The real battle in Aleppo and Mosul

Iraq’s war on Islamic State in Mosul has one big difference from Syria’s war on Aleppo. It tries to protect civilians while Syria either attacks them or basic facilities. Iraq is on the side of history for humanitarian law. 

Iraqi displaced people who fled Islamic State militants in Mosul arrive in Kirkuk to be transported to camps on Dec. 7.

The world’s main body for protecting civilians in war zones, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), is closely watching two tense and pivotal battles in the Middle East. One is Iraq’s assault on Islamic State forces in Mosul. The other is Syria’s attack on pro-democracy rebels in Aleppo. Each is telling, in opposite ways, about global progress toward nations honoring humanitarian law in conflicts.

The ICRC gives high marks to Iraq’s tactics in avoiding civilian casualties as its Army slowly retakes the country’s second largest city. If Iraq's official concern for the innocent in Mosul continues, it might set a strong precedent in the region for living up to the ideals of the Geneva Conventions.

Syria, on the other hand, along with Russian warplanes, is randomly striking schools, hospitals, and anyone who even moves on the streets of eastern Aleppo. On Wednesday, the rising civilian carnage led Britain, Germany, Italy, France, Canada, and the United States to demand an immediate cease-fire. They also asked the United Nations to investigate possible war crimes against civilians.

The Russian-Syrian forces may be on the wrong side of history, based on a new ICRC survey of 17,000 people in 16 countries. The survey found that 8 out of 10 people say combatants should avoid killing civilians as much as possible. That holds for attacks on health facilities. The vast majority of people, in other words, believe in international laws of war. 

Ten of those countries surveyed are currently in conflict, such as Iraq and South Sudan. In those places, 78 percent said it was wrong to attack enemy combatants hiding in urban areas. In Western countries, only 50 percent of people say such attacks in civilian areas are wrong. Those closest to war violence, in other words, are more prone to empathize with innocent civilians and advocate their protection.

For more than a century, the principles of the Geneva Conventions have become steadily accepted by much of humanity. In Aleppo and Mosul, the world can hope that this progress continues.

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