The State Department slammed Moscow’s recent comparison of the US-backed anti-ISIS offensive in Mosul with Russia’s scorched-earth campaign in the Syrian city of Aleppo on Monday, calling the claim “ludicrous” and “insulting.”
“It’s absolutely not the same, and to compare the two is frankly insulting,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said on Monday.
“I mean, in Aleppo you’ve got the regime laying siege to a city with the support of their biggest backer, Russia. In Mosul you have an entire coalition of some 66 nations who have planned for months, so with the vast support and legitimacy of the international community, to retake a city from Daesh over a period of months in support of Iraqi Security Forces,” Kirby said.
Russia insists that its airstrikes on eastern Aleppo have only targeted “terrorists” associated with former al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra — now known as Jabhat Fateh al Sham — and has argued that the strikes are justified because civilians in government-controlled western Aleppo are being attacked by militant groups.
Russian Defence Ministry Spokesman Igor Konashenkov, moreover, claimed on Tuesday that while Russian and Syrian warplanes “have performed no flights in Aleppo for more than two weeks,” Mosul is being “bombed daily” by American warplanes.
Russia halted its airstrikes on Aleppo in early October, Moscow said, to allow civilians to leave the city through six humanitarian corridors established by the Syrian government. But many civilians have chosen not to leave the city, according to reports, out of fear that the corridors are a trap by the government and/or by militants.
The US f
ormally suspended its negotiations with Russia over the cease-fire in Syria on October 3, stating that “Russia and the Syrian regime have chosen to pursue a military course, inconsistent with the Cessation of Hostilities, as demonstrated by their intensified attacks against civilian areas, targeting of critical infrastructure such as hospitals, and preventing humanitarian aid from reaching civilians in need.”
Kirby invoked that statement as he pushed back on Russia’s claim that targeting Nusra in Aleppo is the same as targeting ISIS in Mosul, noting that the US has been actively trying to avoid collateral damage while Russia has been deliberately attacking civilan infrastructure.
“In Aleppo, you have the specific targeting of innocent civilians, first responders, and infrastructure — hospitals — that are specifically being targeted and destroyed, whereas in Mosul the air power that’s being used by the coalition is very precise, very discriminate,” Kirby said. “Great care is taken to avoid civilian casualties, and certainly there is going to be no concerted effort, as there is in Aleppo, to destroy civilian infrastructure.”
Iraq has not been without collateral damage however. An airstrike reportedly hit a funeral procession about 50 miles south of Kirkuk, Iraq last week, killing 17 people, prompting Konashenkov to accuse the US of committing a “war crime.” It is still unclear whether the airstrike came from an American warplane, and the US has not commented on the incident.
The two operations
Moscow intervened in Syria in late September 2015 under the guise of battling the Islamic State. But the vast majority of Russian airstrikes throughout the country have targeted areas held by rebel groups opposed to Syrian president Bashar Assad, a Russian ally. Some of the opposition groups Russia has targeted, including various elements of the Free Syrian Army, have received weapons and funding by the US and Turkey.
There are roughly 275,000 civilians in Aleppo, the UN’s Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura said last month. About 8,000 fighters live among them, nearly 1,000 of whom are members of al-Nusra.
The Mosul operation, meanwhile — officially launched on October 16 — is the largest deployment of Iraqi soldiers since the US invasion in 2003. It is being bolstered by airpower from a 60-country US-led coalition opposed to the Islamic State.
An estimated 5,000 ISIS fighters are inside Mosul, which is home to about 200,000 to 300,000 civilians. Military operations there, according to Kirby, “are being
done in such a way that if they don’t feel threatened, civilians can stay.”
“They can stay because there’s going to be — there’s going to be procedures put in place to try to protect them if they decide to stay,” he continued. “Now, obviously, if they feel threatened and they want to leave, they can leave, but there’s a place to go to. There’ll be some camps that will be prepared to receive them and their families with food, water, medicine.”
The UN’s Refugee Agency (UNHCR) alone runs five camps for internally displaced people in northern Iraq and a further six are under construction, NBC News has reported. Other organisations are reportedly constructing more camps to prepare for the wave of civilians expected to arrive from Mosul as the battle looms.
Aid workers and convoys attempting to provide to relief to civilians in Syria, meanwhile, have been prevented from entering cities besieged by the government. Late last month, a Turkish aid convoy was bombed trying to cross the border into Syria, ostensibly by Russia.
Moscow has denied targeting the aid convoys, but US officials said two Russian Sukhoi SU-24 warplanes were in the skies above the aid convoy at the exact time it was struck.
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