Aleppo to Mosul: The destruction of cities in Iraq and Syria

Aleppo to Mosul: The destruction of cities in Iraq and Syria
Analysis: The destruction of the Sunni cities of Iraq and Syria underlines the terrible price imposed on civilians, notes Paul Iddon.
6 min read
27 July, 2017
The destruction of Aleppo reflects the fate of many Iraqi and Syrian cities [AFP]

The wholesale destruction of large parts of Mosul, particularly the city's western half, to remove the Islamic State group is just part of a more general development across Iraq and Syria: the widespread destruction of cities with Sunni Arab-majority populations.

This trend may have serious consequences in the very near future if it is not addressed.

Before the Mosul "liberation", most of Ramadi - the capital of Anbar, Iraq's other Sunni-majority province - was destroyed by the airstrikes and urban warfare required to rout IS.

It's unclear if these cities can be rebuilt in the near future.

Joel Wing, an Iraq analyst who runs the Musings on Iraq blog, estimates that Sunni areas in Iraq will "remain a mess" following their recapture from IS.

"First there are huge political disputes going on," Wing told The New Arab. "In Anbar, for example, the provincial council is split into two factions, with the opposition trying to get rid of the governor for months. Salahaddin's governor just had a corruption case filed against him. Nineveh's governor got kicked out of the ruling coalition as well."

Wing says all these are "signs that the Sunni community remains as divided as ever, a problem it has had since 2003".

Reconstruction is therefore complicated, since these officials are bickering rather than drafting effective plans for the future, he added.

Wing also points to widespread corruption, with many politicians "angling to get contracts for themselves and their families and friends".

What you see in many cities, even in west Mosul right now, is that as soon as a city is liberated the residents themselves start clearing roads and houses of rubble

Furthermore, the government remains strapped for cash due to the low global price of oil - though this hasn't stopped local Iraqis from taking the initiative.

"What you see in many cities, even in west Mosul right now, is that as soon as a city is liberated the residents themselves start clearing roads and houses of rubble," said Wing. "They start returning to their homes or at least checking on them to see what state they are in. Small businesses like corner stores and food stalls start re-opening.

"The provincial authorities and some ministries then start coming in and fixing roads, providing generators and trying to restore the electrical grid and water and sewage systems. The bigger work is what gets stalled and dragged out because there's a lack of money."

The bill for Mosul's complete reconstruction will be huge. A UN estimate reported it would cost $1 billion "just to restore water, electricity, sewage and schools".

The full reconstruction of all damaged or destroyed buildings in Mosul "will add a lot to that figure", said Wing. "Iraq is hoping to gets grants and loans and donations to cover almost all of that, but it is unlikely to reach their goals," Wing estimates.

"The UN, for example, has only gotten about 50 percent of its calls for donations for its humanitarian work in Iraq for the last several years. I would guess Baghdad is going to do about the same."

Another factor delaying a speedy reconstruction of Mosul is what Wing calls "the issue of revenge". 

"Most western commentary on Iraq sees everything in a sectarian lens," he said. "While you do see all these videos of ISF [Iraqi Security Forces] soldiers and police killing IS suspects - likely Shia ISF members and Sunni victims - the situation is far more complicated than that. All the threats against IS families and expulsions and extrajudicial killings going on outside of Mosul are all Sunni on Sunni, and usually tribal."

Wing points to the "huge trauma and divisions in Iraqi society" caused by IS, anticipating that they "are not going to be healed anytime soon".

"The central government is also weak throughout all of these battle zone areas, so local officials and armed groups can do what they want and Baghdad can't do anything about it, which it doesn't seem interested about anyway," he added.

This leads Wing to ask several important questions, ranging from what it will mean for the Sunni insurgency in Iraq - "the big question" in his estimation - to "how many people will realise that the Islamic State group is a dead-end now they have lived through its rule and seen it defeated? 

"I would assume far fewer would be drawn to their messaging," he suggested, adding that the "other big issue which IS has always exploited is division, especially within tribes".

"Those are still prevalent as ever," he said, before concluding: "Overall, IS' reemergence will be in the long-term based upon exploiting divisions within Iraqi society rather than the immediate situation."

There are also more general consequences for the destruction of Iraq's Sunni cities - as well as Syria's.

In Syria, the regime's Russian-backed operation to remove deeply entrenched anti-regime forces from East Aleppo last year saw highly indiscriminate incendiary and cluster bombs used in an area populated by approximately 250,000 people - and large parts of the eastern district were subsequently destroyed.

Fighting in Aleppo since 2012 has also reduced much of Syria's second-city, also Sunni Arab-majority, and its many important historical and cultural sites, to heaps of rubble.

The destruction of the Sunni cities of Iraq and Syria underlines the terrible price imposed on the Sunni revolt

In Raqqa, another Sunni-majority city, the Americans and their allies in the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are still battling IS. Raqqa is the group's de-facto Syrian "capital".

An SDF commander in Raqqa cited by SYRIA:direct, who requested anonymity, recently claimed that there had been a shift in strategy in the battle there "to save civilian lives" and historic sites in the city, namely the Abbasid al-Atiq mosque in Raqqa's walled Old City - presumably hoping that it doesn't suffer the same fate as the al-Nuri Mosque in Mosul.

It's unclear if such precautions will save much of the city, given the nature of the fight and IS' well-entrenched positions.

"The destruction of the Sunni cities of Iraq and Syria underlines the terrible price imposed on the Sunni revolt," said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert and head of the Middle East Studies department in the University of Oklahoma.

In both Iraq and Syria, disenfranchised Sunnis protested against their respective countries.

In Syria, where the Sunnis are in the majority, it sparked the regime's infamous crackdown in 2011, resulting in the ongoing war. In Iraq, a general protest movement among Sunnis in 2013 gathered momentum only to be forcibly suppressed by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's security forces.

In the ensuing mistrust, division and instability, IS managed to seize swathes of territory in the country's destabilised and restive Sunni areas.

"Many Sunnis have fled Iraq and Syria altogether, others remain homeless or displaced internally," Landis said. "No one can predict whether the religious and ethnic communities of the region will reintegrate.

"Can they overcome their anger and sense of injustice to rebuild a common sense of national community? So much depends on the immediate generosity of the victors and their ability to extend the hand of reconciliation and brotherhood. Much also will depend on the vanquished.

"It is imperative that all sides seek accommodation," he concluded. "It is clear that the future of both Iraq and Syria hang in the balance today. The effort to rebuild the devastated Sunni cities of the Levant will decide if disheartening legacy of division and injustice can be halted and hopefully reversed."

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon