News from Iraq about heavy civilian losses possibly associated with American airstrikes in the battle for Mosul is heartbreaking. Yes, civilian deaths are an inevitable cost of war: especially in urban combat. No, the deliberate targeting of civilians is not something U.S. Air Force and naval aviation do. Still, meeting the challenges of protecting civilians in combat requires extraordinary commitment and effort.
In Syria, for example, the forthcoming battle for the city of Raqqa — the "capital" of the so-called Islamic State — presents a real problem. There may be more than 200,000 civilians packed into a place thoroughly booby trapped and "defended" by brigands for whom murder, hostage-taking and hiding behind noncombatants all come as naturally as breathing. Setting aside a scenario in which terrorists abandon the place before a shot is fired, the taking of the city must prioritize the protection of civilians under the most challenging of circumstances.
In the wake of the Paris atrocities of November 2015 — planned in Raqqa — this writer proposed to the Obama administration that it recruit and lead a professional ground-force coalition of the willing to route ISIS from eastern Syria, thereby setting the stage for the decisive battle in Iraq. The coalition could work with locals and the Syrian opposition to establish municipal administrations linked by a new, recognized Syrian government. Not only would military professionals do the job better than local militiamen in terms of military proficiency and civilian protection, but the United States and its allies would have a diplomatic alternative to recognizing a murderous satrap of Iran — Bashar Assad — as the president of Syria.
That proposal went nowhere. The administration was content to pursue the terrorists slowly, with a combination of air power and a Kurdish-dominated militia. An operation planned by ISIS in Raqqa struck the Brussels airport in March 2016. Several similar atrocities victimized Turks. None of this prompted serious administration consideration of an accelerated, professional campaign. None of it inspired a diplomatic, coalition-building, heavy lift. This despite unsolicited offers by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to commit ground forces to eastern Syria to fight ISIS. Instead, non-Kurds — mainly Arabs — were recruited to the Kurdish-dominated militia to give it some minimal acceptability to Syrian Arabs living under terrorist rule.
The Trump administration is clearly bringing to eastern Syria the sense of urgency lacking in its predecessor. Yet the failure of Washington to work with allies to apply a professional political-military solution to the menace represented by ISIS has been telling. Now, on the grounds of urgency, militiamen — albeit with American military advisers — are to be introduced into a complex urban environment to do battle with an enemy for whom nothing is unthinkable. Do these militiamen have the requisite training for operating in built-up areas? Do they possess fire discipline? Are they able to maneuver skillfully and acquire targets accurately? Are militiamen the best answer to overcoming complex tactical challenges in ways that neutralize the enemy and protect civilians?
Leave aside the political complications of using a ground force dominated by a Kurdish organization deemed as terrorist by a NATO ally (Turkey) and as having narrow, negative political aspirations in the eyes of predominantly Arab populations suffering under ISIS rule. Set to the side the possibility of enjoying blind luck. Stipulate that 2016 was a wasted year in terms of building a professional alternative. Still, is this militia-centric approach truly the best we can do? If we end up in Mosul with large numbers of civilian casualties despite the presence of relatively professional Iraqi ground forces accompanied by American advisers, what should we expect in Raqqa with paramilitary gunmen walking point?
Recent reports suggesting that American advisers are working with the militia — the Syrian Democratic Forces — to set up a post-ISIS city council in Raqqa are disquieting. Every effort should be made to ensure that the people of Raqqa govern themselves. A local coordination council was established for that purpose years ago, with American assistance, before ISIS moved in. Its members are now underground or in Turkey. It and the Syrian opposition ought to be consulted on post-liberation governance. To do otherwise is to invite trouble.
The people of Raqqa have suffered enormously at the hands of Syria's most powerful terrorist groups: the Assad regime and ISIS. They will suffer more as their city is liberated from the latter: This is inevitable. But the extent of that suffering will depend on how their city is liberated and by whom. Knowing that civilian protection is a highly professional priority for the anti-ISIS coalition would be reassuring. Seeing specific measures reflecting that priority would be lifesaving. Taking the ground-force coalition plans off the shelf and putting them into play could temper urgency with professionalism.
Frederic C. Hof, director at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, served as a special adviser for transition in Syria at the U.S. State Department in 2012.