Former US Secretary of State John Kerry should be thankful that Hillary Clinton lost the US presidential election.
Had she won, Kerry would now have to defend the standards he set last October for fighting city warfare in the Middle East.
As Russian-backed Syrian forces battled to win control of Aleppo last year Kerry said he was deeply disturbed and outraged by what was happening.
The siege and bombings were “a humanitarian disaster”. They could stop tomorrow if Russia and the Assad regime behaved according to any norm or any standard of decency.
In press briefings Kerry’s State Department officials pushed the same line saying that civilians shouldn’t have to leave Aleppo and they shouldn’t be bombed by the Russians or the Syrian government.
But now American-backed Iraqi forces are confronted with the same dilemma as they battle to take Mosul.
The 600,000 people trapped in western Mosul face famine, death and injury from the campaign.
The United Nations reports that there is little food and water. No steady supplies have been able to reach the west since mid-November.
About 255,000 people have been displaced since October, including more than 100,000 since the western military campaign began on February 19.
A large number of civilians have been killed or injured.
Chris Woods, director of independent civilian casualties monitoring agency Airwars, says that since the assault began hundreds have been reported killed by coalition airstrikes.
“We’re seeing worse numbers now in Mosul than we did during Aleppo,” he says.
“There was a report in the British Daily Telegraph [March 12] saying 300 civilians died in just two neighbourhoods of Mosul in a 24-hour period as a result of airstrikes.”
The Russian and Syrian campaign to take Aleppo was extensively covered by western media with Moscow and Damascus usually blamed for the death and injury of civilians.
Few if any mainstream western media representatives blamed the al-Qaeda backed rebels for the carnage or called on them to surrender as a way of ending the siege.
Woods rightly points out that the international media is not covering the civilian casualties in Mosul in the same way as they covered the Aleppo conflict.
Certainly the n television networks are not. Children are being killed and injured and pulled from bombed buildings but if it’s “our” side doing the bombing it seems it’s not to be screened.
But the killing is not going un-noticed. It’s being raised in US State Department briefings, not least by Russian journalists.
On March 15, one journalist referred to Iraqi politician Khamis Khanjar’s statement that at least 3500 civilians had been killed in Mosul within the past month. Khanjar said the mounting casualties came mainly from airstrikes and indiscriminate shelling of heavily crowded neighbourhoods.
In response State Department official Mark Toner, who was briefing the media before the presidential election and still holds his position, abandoned Kerry’s Aleppo line that no civilians should be killed or forced to leave a city when it is being liberated.
He maintained that US forces made every effort to avoid civilian casualties when carrying out airstrikes. He said he didn’t have any sense of whether Khanjar’s numbers were credible.
If there were credible allegations of civilian casualties as a result of the coalition’s actions or Iraqi Security Forces’ actions, they should be investigated.
US authorities are co-operating with Airwars to assess allegations of civilian casualties.
But Chris Woods told the ABC’s 7.30 Report that his organisation could not engage with because n authorities would not say where they bombed, when they bombed and what they bombed. He said this had been going on for 30 months.
Questioned about this a Defence Department spokesperson told TheCanberra Times that the ADF operated under strict rules of engagement that were designed to protect n forces, minimise the risk of injury to civilians and strictly comply with ‘s obligations under domestic and international law.
He said the n Defence Force provided regular public updates on its operations, including in Iraq and Syria, and aimed to balance the protection of operational security with its obligation to be transparent and accountable to the n public.
The spokesperson said statistical data about air operations was available on the Defence website.
But the Air Task Group (ATG) statistics only show the number of operations flown each month. They do not reveal where n aircraft bombed, when they bombed and what they bombed.
The spokesperson said the ADF thoroughly reviewed every ATG strike following the return of the aircraft to ensure the strike accorded with pre-strike approvals.
“The ADF takes all allegations of civilian casualties seriously. If an allegation is raised following an ATG strike, the matter is investigated and the findings are reported.”
The ATG strike data was aggregated with coalition data and released in the daily coalition media release, he said.
But this clearly does not satisfy Airwars, which contrasts ‘s procedures with those of the United States and Britain.
In its transparency audit released in December Airwars said was one of the least transparent members of the international coalition fighting ISIS.
“Canberra has consistently refused to disclose almost any information relating to an estimated 405 airstrikes to October 2016 – with one notable exception,” the report states.
Airwars says it is unacceptable that and a number of other coalition partners have chosen to wage “semi-secret conventional wars – with affected civilians on the ground, citizens at home and monitoring agencies unable to hold these governments to account.”
Airwars rejected the security argument for refusing to disclose the dates and location of airstrikes.
“While these are legitimate worries, other states have made clear that improved public reporting has not led to an increase in such security concerns,” the report says.
“British and Canadian defence officials in particular argue that greater public transparency on military actions can be beneficial when engaging domestic populations. The adoption of similar good practice by all coalition partners can and should be pursued with some urgency.”