The battle to retake the Iraqi city of Mosul from Islamic State, which began five months ago, has now become the most intense urban warfare since World War II. Street-to-street fighting in Mosul’s western and older section has put Iraqi forces to the test against ISIS fighters, who took Iraq’s second-largest city in 2014.
Yet unlike any previous urban combat in the history of war, the battle for Mosul includes an unusual protection for civilians. Humanitarian workers have set up a chain of lifesaving care facilities for the wounded, from the front lines to field clinics only 10 minutes away. As tens of thousands have fled the fighting, they are quickly being given necessary physical care, and later any rehabilitative or mental treatment.
This chain of care around Mosul represents a renewed interest by the United Nations and other international bodies to implement two core ideas of humanitarian law – that the violence of war must have its limits and innocent life must be protected. ISIS may not abide by the Geneva Conventions but Iraq and its foreign partners are determined to embrace the global norm that calls for the prevention of unnecessary suffering in war.
Much of the attention in the battle for Mosul has focused on civilian casualties, most of which are intentional acts of barbarity by ISIS. The group “ruthlessly exploits civilians to serve its own ends, and clearly has not even the faintest qualm about deliberately placing them in danger,” says UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein. Yet ISIS’s disregard for civilians is up against the rest of the world’s loving concern for Mosul’s besieged residents. This is reflected in the pre-battle spending to position care facilities near the city. Many of the facilities are run by the World Health Organization, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and Doctors Without Borders. The Iraqi government has also contributed.
This unprecedented application of humanitarian law in urban warfare needs to be copied in other ongoing battles in the Middle East, such as in Yemen and Syria. Embedded in this practice is the universal idea that each individual has a right to health regardless of ideology or creed. The more the world embraces that idea and cares for the innocent in war, perhaps wars will become less violent. The bonds of humanity can be a strong defense against the claims of physical power.