Urban warfare is not a new phenomenon; cities have featured as a stage for violence since humans began building them, and images in recent years – from Aleppo, Mosul, and Sana’a to Marawi, Mogadishu, Donetsk, and Mekelle – leave little room for doubt that towns and cities will remain primary battlegrounds for future armed conflicts. We can expect belligerents to continue using traditional methods such as sieges, tunnels, booby traps, artillery, mortars and snipers and complement these with modern capabilities such as new technologies of warfare and precision. Against this evolving backdrop, we must reflect urgently and in earnest about the ways in which contemporary urban conflicts are fought and the devastating humanitarian consequences they cause to cities and their populations. In this post, Laurent Gisel, Head of the Arms and Conduct of Hostilities Unit, Pilar Gimeno, Head of the Protection of Civilians Unit, Ken Hume, Head of the Armed and Security Forces Unit, and Abby Zeith, Legal Adviser, launch a new series on urban warfare. In the coming months and years, the series will feature contributions from a diverse range of experts debating and exploring the humanitarian, legal, military and other challenges raised by urban warfare, such as the choice of means and methods of warfare during urban combat, the practices of non-State armed groups, the role of law and military lawyers, siege tactics, underground warfare, precautionary measures, human shields, and lessons learned from recent urban operations.

Ten years ago, Syrians took to the streets, unleashing political tensions that rapidly devolved into an armed conflict that has devastated the country and its people ever since. The world watched with horror as beloved and near mythical cities such as Damascus, Aleppo, Raqqa, Palmyra and Homs were destroyed by intense urban battles, their inhabitants killed, maimed, and displaced. War in these cities has left deep scars on the social fabric of affected communities and robbed entire generations of their youth.

More generally, over the last decades we have seen a resurgence of urban warfare in the Middle East and beyond, with an estimated 50 million people around the world bearing the brunt of it.

Today’s urban centres are often vulnerable to conflict for the very reasons they are key hubs of civilian life.

First, cities have strategic value. As a core hub of people, power, economic activity, social institutions, history, and culture, and an embodiment of national identities, controlling cities and their inhabitants is seen as strategically critical by belligerents.

Second, the rapid rise in urbanization – which also reinforces the strategic value of cities. For the first time in history, more people live in urban areas rather than rural settings, a proportion that is expected to increase to 68 per cent by 2050. With cities growing vertically and populations becoming denser, urban centres will become increasingly congested, complex and interdependent.

And third, it may be belligerents’ strategy to draw the fighting into an urban area. The physical and human terrain of a city can offer advantages to the defender and mitigate the technological superiority of a more powerful opponent. Attackers may also try to pin defenders down in a city to prevent their escape, or resort to siege warfare.

Against the chaotic backdrop of cities in conflict, there are a range of humanitarian, legal and military challenges, as well as ways of overcoming them. We invite you to join us in a critical reflection of some of the age-old problems – and the new solutions to them – in this new blog series on how best to minimize the humanitarian consequences arising from urban warfare.

The human cost of urban warfare

Any genuine conversation must begin with the people affected; the humanitarian consequences of urban warfare are complex, direct and indirect, immediate and long-term, visible and invisible.

Urban fighting is uniquely characterized by the co-mingling of military objectives with civilians and civilian objects. Such proximity creates significant challenges for belligerents to fully comply with a cardinal rule of international humanitarian law: the principle of distinction. For civilians caught up in urban hostilities, the consequences are devastating. From our presence on the ground, and together with Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies, we have witnessed first-hand the immense and multifaceted suffering that urban warfare causes to civilians:

Injury and death among civilians and damage to civilian and other protected objects occur on a dramatic scale. This can be attributed to a large extent to the use in urban areas of explosive weapons that have wide area effects. Although designed for the open battlefield, today these are the weapons predominantly used in urban warfare: heavy, mostly unguided artillery, mortars, and multi-barrel rocket launchers, large bombs and missiles, and IEDs.

In parallel, urban services that are indispensable for sustaining life are disrupted by the direct, indirect and cumulative impact of hostilities. Too often, inhabitants are deprived of food, water, sanitation, electricity and health care. Cuts to these basic needs are aggravated when cities are besieged, when impartial humanitarian organizations are denied access to the civilian population, or when urban conflicts become protracted.

While some civilians may be prevented from leaving a besieged area, fighting in urban centres often results in mass displacement, permanently changing the landscape and social fabric of many towns and cities across the world. Civilians are left with no choice but to flee, and often do so at great danger to themselves. They may be targeted, caught in crossfire, mistreated by parties to armed conflict, and separated from their family members. Once the fighting is over, unexploded ordnance and other forms of weapon contamination and the lack of essential services prevent many displaced people from returning, often for years.

Many of these consequences are not unique to war in cities, but they occur on a significantly larger scale in urban warfare because of the sheer density of population and civilian objects, the tactics and weapons used by the belligerents, and the often protracted nature of urban fighting.

The humanitarian consequences of urban warfare require a more sustained and holistic humanitarian response. The ICRC and the entire Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement continue to reinforce their capacity to prevent and respond to these consequences. We favour a multidisciplinary integrated approach combining prevention, protection and assistance activities specifically adapted to the urban context. We engage with belligerents at every level, driven by the voices of the people who are most affected.

A challenging context for belligerents

Make no mistake about it, urban warfare is one of the most intense and destructive forms of warfare. It is devastating for the civilian population, the wounded and sick and those deprived of their liberty; it is also extremely challenging for the attacker and defender.

The urban battlefield is multidimensional. Belligerents have to consider activities in the external space (i.e. outside buildings and subterranean areas) as well as those hidden activities occurring in the internal space (i.e. inside buildings and subterranean systems). As ground forces navigate narrow streets surrounded by concrete and steel structures, they quickly find themselves in harm’s way.

The urban battlefield is highly resource intensive, both in terms of endeavouring to defeat the enemy, but also out of efforts to respect humanitarian imperatives, such as establishing safe evacuation routes for civilians who wish to leave voluntarily, providing for the needs of displaced civilians, providing medical care to civilians and wounded combatants alike, handling of human remains, and clearing unexploded ordnance.

Fighting in cities presents belligerents with several legal, moral and strategic challenges. This is especially the case if they are facing an adversary who has established defences amongst the civilian population, used objects protected by international humanitarian law for military purposes, or even used civilians as human shields.

These challenges confront commanders with a complex set of dilemmas, particularly insofar as they pertain to command, control, communication and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. For example, the terrain and the multitude of actors operating within it can make it difficult for operational commanders to directly influence the tactical battle once it has begun. These challenges may be exacerbated when urban operations are conducted alongside coalition and partner forces. Due to these dilemmas, it is common for subordinates to be entrusted to operate in a decentralized manner during urban operations, either alone or in small groups and to make key decisions independently and without advice, including legal advice.

However, with the decentralization of authority comes great responsibility. Among others, higher level commanders must ensure their subordinate leaders and soldiers are prepared, trained and equipped to make decisions and conduct their operations in a way that is sound from a legal and humanitarian perspective.

Even urban warfare has limits

International humanitarian law, or IHL, embodies the basic principle that war must be waged within certain limits. These limits exist to preserve the lives and dignity of human beings, and protect those not, or no longer, taking part in hostilities, in particular civilians.

The main IHL principles on the conduct of hostilities – the principles of distinction, proportionality and precautions – are all about protecting civilians from the effects of fighting. Stringent protection is afforded to objects indispensable to the survival of the population, and to medical and humanitarian infrastructure and personnel. While the circumstances of urban fighting might make the application of these rules more demanding than in open terrain because of the proximity of military objectives and protected persons and objects, it is precisely for this reason that the rules are most critical in such environments.

Protecting civilians caught in the midst of urban combat indeed starts with full and good faith compliance with IHL, also known as the law of armed conflict or the laws of war. The devastating humanitarian consequences of urban warfare, however, raise serious questions regarding how parties to such conflicts interpret and apply relevant IHL rules. Recently, the ICRC has elaborated some of its views on the IHL challenges arising out of the urbanization of conflict and some legal issues that could require further clarification.

Processes and policies designed to encourage greater compliance with, and/or provide protection additional to, IHL are also critical. In this respect, since 2011 the ICRC has called on States and all parties to armed conflict to avoid, as a matter of policy, the use of explosive weapons with a wide impact area in populated areas, namely that they should not use them unless sufficient mitigation measures are taken to limit their wide area affects and reduce the consequent risk of civilian harm. Indeed, these weapons are inappropriate for urban combat due to the significant likelihood that their use in such an environment indiscriminately affects military objectives and civilians and civilian objects alike. The UN Secretary-General and a number of States (see e.g. Maputo declaration and Santiago declaration) have since joined the ICRC in its call. Governments are currently working towards a political declaration aimed at addressing the civilian harm caused by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas and the ICRC welcomes these efforts (see here and here).

Preparation and training: a prerequisite

The protection of civilians needs to be made a priority for all military operations and, in particular, in the urban environment where civilians are most acutely at risk. At all levels, and well before the planning phase of any urban operation, civilian authorities and military commanders need to clearly articulate, including in doctrine and directives, an intent that places IHL compliance and the protection of civilians at the centre of any mission, and subordinate commanders must be trained in how to reflect this in their military decision-making.

Greater respect for IHL and urban-warfare specific policies is only possible if military forces and non-State armed groups are properly trained and equipped for the demands of the urban environment, if they are under strict orders as to the conduct to adopt, and if effective sanctions are applied in the event they fail to obey such orders. In addition to formal integration of the law, encouraging individual soldiers and fighters to internalize the values it represents through informal sources of socialization is particularly important for urban warfare where traditional understanding of command and control face persistent challenges.

Urban warfare doctrine and training must be realistic. It should place greater emphasis on preparing troops for the ways in which large-scale civilian presence impacts upon operations, targeting or other aspects of combat, and conversely how urban warfare affects cities and their population. In particular, the taking of precautions to avoid or at least minimize civilian casualties and damage to civilian objects needs to be prioritized as an integral component of any urban combat training programme. Armed forces need to have the ability to understand, anticipate and mitigate the variety of long-term harmful effects that urban warfare causes for the city’s inhabitants, including displacement, lack of access to essential services, or loss of livelihoods, and how such risks may be amplified by specific methods such as sieges. Similarly, troops need to be trained in how to identify risks and opportunities to better ensure respect for IHL during partnered military operations.

A recent ICRC study found that training is most effective if taught intensively when using mixed methods such as classroom instruction, case-study analysis, command post and practical field exercises and wargaming, and when taught by a trainer with high credibility among the soldiers. Effectiveness should be tested under duress. For example, command and staff colleges need to prepare future commanders and staff officers for the genuine humanitarian challenges they will face when forced to operate in the urban environment; bypassing and avoiding cities in warfare will not always be a viable course of action, no matter how preferable.

Better protecting civilians on the urban battlefield

Beyond training, a lot more needs to be done on the actual battlefield.

First, operational commanders should shape the battlefield at the strategic, operational and tactical levels in a way that minimizes urban fighting, favoring strategies and tactics that draw the fight outside of cities to the extent possible.

Second, recent conflicts have seen a resurgence of sieges and other encirclement tactics. Such tactics raise many legal, policy and humanitarian issues. Today, sieges are lawful only when directed exclusively against an enemy’s armed forces. The plight of civilians deprived of supplies essential to their survival in a besieged area can no longer be used by a besieging party as a legitimate means to subdue its enemy. The implementation of several rules stemming from the principle of precautions also requires both parties to allow civilians to leave the besieged area whenever feasible.

Third, all belligerents who plan and decide upon attacks in an urban area, whether besieged or not, must know how to anticipate the direct and indirect (or reverberating) effects of their attacks. For example, a sound understanding of the human environment (chapter 3) during the ‘intelligence preparation of the environment’ phase of military planning can facilitate the design and implementation of effective strategies to minimize risks of civilian harm. This includes an understanding of the population’s vulnerabilities, strengths and resiliencies, based on a multidisciplinary people-centric assessment. Belligerents must notably account for the specific characteristics, vulnerabilities and interconnectedness of critical urban civilian infrastructure and services essential to civilian survival (e.g. water, sanitation, electricity and health care). The expertise of humanitarian organizations such as the ICRC, working on the front-lines to respond to the consequences of urban warfare, might be particularly informative for belligerents and commanders when planning military operations, as well as when promulgating guidance and standard operating procedures on how to anticipate, and avoid causing, such civilian harm.

Finally, belligerents must be able to recognize when an attack in an urban area will run afoul of the prohibitions on indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks, and must refrain from such attacks. In particular, belligerents should not use explosive weapons with a wide impact area in populated areas unless sufficient mitigation measures are taken to limit their wide area affects and reduce the consequent risk of civilian harm. In this respect, belligerents need to be equipped with the means and trained on methods that actually enable them to fight in compliance with IHL and avoid or at least minimize civilian harm.

‘Destroying an urban area to save it is not an option’

Urban battles are so fraught with danger that it is no wonder why militaries might seek to avoid them. Take, for example, the United States Army and Marine Corps 2017 Manual on Urban Operations, which states:

Destroying an urban area to save it is not an option for commanders. The density of civilian populations in urban areas and the multidimensional nature of the environment make it more likely that even accurate attacks with precision weapons will injure noncombatants.…If collateral damage is likely to be of sufficient magnitude, it may justify avoiding urban operations, which though tactically successful, would run counter to national and strategic objectives.

Despite all possible efforts that could be made to avoid urban combat, we cannot ignore the fact that armed conflicts in populated areas are going to continue well into the future. For many, the names of Aleppo, Mosul and Sana’a conjure images of devastation and desolation of once historical and imposing cities, and of death, injury and suffering amongst the population. Such devastating humanitarian consequences should prompt States and non-State armed groups to pause and consider how to ensure that the protection of civilians features at the heart of all urban operations, and whether a change of mindset as to how they approach such operations is needed.

This post can only scratch the surface of the avenues to prevent and reduce the far-reaching consequences that urban warfare causes to civilians and civilian objects. Many other aspects require further discussion and analysis, such as what can be required in practice in terms of separating military objectives from protected persons and objects under the belligerent control (so-called passive precautions); the tactics, technologies and equipment suited for urban combat; civilian casualty tracking and investigation of allegations of IHL violations; or the integration of lessons identified from past urban operations.

The ICRC is committed to stepping up its engagement. We will continue to identify and promote recommendations and practical measures for political authorities, militaries and non-State armed groups on how to prevent and reduce these humanitarian consequences and strengthen respect for IHL. With this blog series, we invite you to help us engage in a critical reflection on how to improve existing military practices at the tactical, operational and strategic levels to ensure compliance with IHL obligations and reduce civilian harm during the conduct of urban warfare.

See also