By Patrick BAHZAD
Aleppo, Mosul, Raqqa, Ghouta … A few years ago, nobody would have known these names. With the rise of the "Islamic State" in the Middle-East, and the civil war in Syria, those cities have become battlefields of a new kind. At least, that's what they look like. Areas seized and held by a non-state actor, requiring the mobilisation of large forces to take them back, at a huge cost both in manpower, equipment and civilian life. Based on these premises, a number of analysts have posited that the way these insurgencies were able to fight back against overwhelming conventional forces is an indicator of what's to come. The future of humankind certainly trends towards growing urbanisation. Therefore, statistically, there is certainly a case to be made for a growing likelihood of urban engagements. But is the impression we're under really the result of an rational analysis or are we mistakenly projecting what might be a temporary development into a fact of future warfare ? Here are a few thoughts on the subject.
Urban warfare, not to be confused with siege warfare, is a recent phenomenon. Up until the early 20th century, and with a few exceptions, fighting for a city meant laying siege to it and finding a way to breach its walls or submitting the defenders through starvation. Either way, there was no fighting behind the city walls, in the streets or alleys. Or if there was, as in Carthage in 146 BC, there was never any doubt as to who would prevail: once the walls were breached, the city would fall.
This feature of urban/siege warfare began to change significantly with the 20th century. Although there are earlier examples of hard-fought battles in small towns and villages, the starting point of urban warfare as we know it can definitely be set at the 1930s. There are a few fundamental reasons for this. Strategically, cities were no longer military objectives per se, unless as the centre of gravity of an adversary. Whether in manoeuver or trench warfare, there was generally not much to be gained from besieging or defending a large urban area. From an attacking point of view, it meant diverting huge amounts of resources and manpower, while at the same time leaving large swaths of land uncontrolled. From a defensive point of view, it was even more counter-productive, as this was the best way for your armies to be contained and unable to manoeuver effectively.
Siege Warfare vs Urban Warfare
But ever since nation-States took over from city-States as the main actors of international politics, conventional warfare has always been more focused on seizing territory and defeating an enemy in open battle. Furthermore, as already mentioned, when it came to fighting for a city, the battle basically ceased when the walls were breached. The reason why this pattern changed in the 1930s is related neither to strategy nor to military doctrine. Rather, it was the result of technological changes that suddenly made it possible for a defender to keep on fighting in an urban area that was not protected by walls, and still be in a position to defeat an attacker.
These reasons are related – roughly – to new building materials, like concrete in particular. Buildings and blocks of buildings that previously would not have been able to sustain fire became more resistant, like small castles or fortified structures within an urban area. And because most of these structures were civilian in nature, it wasn't possible for an attacker drawing up a battle-plan to identify precisely which areas defensive forces could be stationed in or how the city would be defended from within. The use of concrete also added a third dimension to urban warfare, because tunnels, sewage systems and subways could be used both as lines of communication, defensive positions and logistical bases.
The other reason why urban warfare became a distinct possibility in the 20th century is because of the development of new infantry and artillery weapons during world war I. By the end of that war, an infantry platoon had the firepower of an 18th century line regiment. Groups of 10 men or so could therefore hold a building against an overwhelming force for much longer than before. But with the additional firepower came also increased mobility, as light, medium and even heavy machine guns could be taken with reasonable ease from one block to the next. Manoeuver warfare in a concrete jungle therefore became possible. The development of light artillery systems further increased the chances for defenders to prevail against an attacking force within the limits of a city.
The first instances in which this type of warfare occurred are probably the battle for Madrid, during the Spanish civil war in 1936, and the battle of Nanking during the second Sino-Japanese war in 1937. The fact that these almost simultaneous battles took place at totally different places probably bears testimony to the structural change that had occurred in relation to urban warfare at this time. Ever since then, there have been urban battles in various wars all over the world. Circumstances and adversaries have differed, but the principles at work have basically been similar. From that point of view, the fact that recent urban warfare in the Middle-East took place between State and non-State actors aren't exactly new either. In Vietnam in the 1960s, or in Grozny in the 1990s, large scale urban engagements between conventional armies and insurgent groups were not uncommon.
Recent Urban Battles in the Middle-East
Looking at recent military history however, in particular in the Middle-East, it needs to be stressed that we are basically witnessing two sometimes different phenomena. On the one hand, there's the war in Syria, which has seen urban warfare in several instances, from Aleppo to Ghouta and Deraa. In these cases however, the actual fighting has usually been linked to a prolonged phase of siege (and starve) tactics, combined with complex negotiations and psyops aimed at dividing defenders and therefore minimising the amount of force used to take back these areas. At the same time, these campaigns have been extremely violent and costly in human lives, particularly civilians, because the attacking forces (SAA and Russian air force in particular) are not exactly focused on sparing civilians they know to be hostile to the regime. Furthermore, the lack of precision guided munitions also makes it more difficult to avoid collateral damage.
From a US/Western point of view, the most eloquent example of recent urban warfare is the battle for Mosul (October 2016 to July 2017), in which Iraqi government forces took back the city from IS with the help of the US-led Coalition. There is a lot to be learnt from Mosul both in terms of what to do and what not to. A full AAR on the battle would be too long to develop here, but a couple of aspects should be made clear. Precision guided munitions are no guarantee for avoidance of civilian casualties. The more densely an area is populated, the more likely it is that civilians are going to be killed in large numbers during the fighting. This holds true regardless of the type of munitions you're going to use. And stringent ROEs are only effective if you're willing to sacrifice more of your own men rather than risking civilian loss of life.
Another lesson to take away from Mosul is that your attacking force needs to have both the will and the ability to conduct combined arms operations in an urban environment. The Iraqi forces had neither. Once the ICTS, which spearhead the offensive on Eastern Mosul, had suffered massive casualties, there was no plan B. An early multipronged assault on the city, which eventually led to the collapse of IS defences in May 2017, would probably have spared lots of suffering, but the Iraqis couldn't handle it until Western Special Forces were embedded in various of their outfits, almost on the frontlines. In that regard, the ISF performed very poorly compared to the SAA during the final stages of the assault on Eastern Aleppo in late 2016.
Lessons to be learnt
New weapons systems might alleviate some of the problems that were encountered: better satellite guided airburst artillery shells for example could be of use. The need for more appropriate close-quarter infantry weapons also needs to be considered, whether that is small thermobaric charges or possibly flamethrowers, however unsavoury this may sound.
Combat sappers and engineers also need to make a big comeback, together with equipment that is better suited to the contingencies of urban warfare. The use of prebuilt concrete structures, both for force protection and isolation of enemy held ground in a city, is worth considering, as its role has gone largely unnoticed and could possibly save lots of lives.
Most of all, however, it is the ability to conduct manoeuver warfare and combined arms, from the platoon level upwards, that will be the best guarantee for success in urban warfare. Western military analysts have duly noted our own deficiencies in those areas and are correctly advocating for better training of our forces in this regard. Possibly, larger training structures need to be built in order to be able to prepare adequately for potential operations in very large cities.
However, it would probably be dangerous to assume that today's trends are necessarily going to repeat themselves tomorrow. There is a lot of talk about the risk of "fighting in megacities". Well, there is that risk, but which megacities are we talking about ? The fact is that today's urban warfare in the Middle-East is the result of very specific circumstances, either civil war and/or failed States, which gave insurgencies the opportunity to take over not just rural areas but also cities.
Tomorrow just as Today ?
But for insurgencies, it is the control of the populace, rather than the territory, that has always been the priority. This is a fact and truth that can be found Mao's famous phrase: "the guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea". The idea is not necessarily for insurgencies to control cities and to act there like a proxy State, but to be able to take advantage of population centres in order to grow and control the people. It is important to keep this in mind, because this is an immutable principle, whereas what we have witnessed over the past few years in Iraq and Syria possibly isn't.
Tomorrow's world will be more urbanised, that much is clear. Thus, the risks of urban engagements are growing, but for the "Islamic State" and the (not so) moderate rebels in Syria, taking over cities – when they had the chance to – was not just a political statement, i.e. taking over a State or creating a new one. Militarily, it was also a tactical opportunity at levelling the playing field, for the city is the environment where these insurgencies have the best chances of nullifying the advantages of their foes in terms of ISR, firepower and air support.
This is the real lesson in the current trend of urban fighting. It has currently become a major feature of war, because it enables the weaker actor to increase its chances against a stronger opponent. It is not a structural trend linked to the changing nature of warfare and a look at other areas of conflict and tension confirms this: whether in Eastern Ukraine, or on the Korean peninsula, strategic planning and military operations are not as concerned with urban areas. War is truly a chameleon. If you can, you should prepare to encounter it in all its shapes and colours. Focusing more on the issues of urban warfare is therefore advisable and necessary. But considering that tomorrow's wars will be shaped by current experiences only might prove a dangerous fallacy.