The New Frontlines Are in the Slums

The Middle East's wars are turning cities into Stalingrads.

Rebel fighters pose with an Islamic State group flag as they advance on February 20, 2017, towards the city of Al-Bab, some 30 kilometres from the Syrian city of Aleppo.
        (NAZEER AL-KHATIB/AFP/Getty Images)
Rebel fighters pose with an Islamic State group flag as they advance on February 20, 2017, towards the city of Al-Bab, some 30 kilometres from the Syrian city of Aleppo. (NAZEER AL-KHATIB/AFP/Getty Images)

The Middle East’s cities have become tragic metonyms for the conflicts that plague the region. Aleppo is shorthand for the cataclysmic Syrian civil war, Raqqa and Mosul for the massive showdowns with the Islamic State, Misrata and Benghazi for the various iterations of Libya’s turmoil, and Aden and Taiz for the conflict in Yemen.

Armed conflict has taken a decisive turn toward cities. Urban warfare is not new, but in an age of relentless activity by militias and insurgents, cities are now the staging ground for protracted and brutal conflicts. We are in a world grimly reminiscent of that predicted by Marxist urbanist Mike Davis in 2006, where, “Night after night, hornetlike helicopter gunships stalk enigmatic enemies in the narrow streets of the slum districts, pouring hellfire into shanties or fleeing cars. Every morning the slums reply with suicide bombers and eloquent explosions.”

Hodeida, one of Yemen’s main port cities, with its 600,000 inhabitants, is the latest in this worrying series of urban conflicts. There, Yemeni forces backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are trying to dislodge Houthi fighters, a Zaydi insurgency controlling large swathes of western and northern Yemen. Pleas by Western powers to call off the operation and offers by the United Nations to negotiate the peaceful handover of the port have produced a temporary ceasefire, but the city is still under threat.

Most of the large-scale conflicts of the 20th century were predominantly rural, with urban battles such as Stalingrad being the exception rather than the rule. Mao Zedong called on the guerrilla to move among the people like the fish in the sea, thinking of China’s rural peasantry. But today, nonstate armed groups — such as rebel groups and sectarian militias — more easily find ways to blend in with the population, raise more funds, and hinder government crackdowns in cities.

A key lesson from recent wars is that rebel movements adopt sprawling and dense cities as bases, human shields, and camouflage against their enemies. Conflicts and the armed groups that drive them are now embedded into the infrastructure and population of cities.

Rapid population growth, often blamed for urban violence, is only one part of the explanation. Other attractive factors for armed actors, both endemic and external to the city, include weak state presence across sprawling peripheries and the availability of transnational criminal economies. The Middle East and North Africa faced rapid and unmanaged urbanization during the second half of the 20th century, with the share of people living in cities rising from less than half in 1980 to nearly 60 percent in 2000.

Sprawling agglomerations in regions already afflicted by political and sectarian tensions have been particularly affected. Shiite militias based in the Baghdad slum of Sadr City were able to defy U.S. forces during most of their presence in Iraq during the 2000s. Approximately 3 million people remained off-limits to U.S. forces and defiant against Iraqi authorities for at least five years until the U.S. Army engaged in a two-month-long battle to weaken the main local militia, the Mahdi Army, in 2008.

Protracted urban confrontations have been a consistent trend in the recent Middle East wars. Sections of Aleppo, formerly an important industrial center, were completely flattened during nearly four years of combat, from 2012 to 2016, between rebel groups and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In Mosul, the Islamic State used the sprawl of Iraq’s second-largest city to compensate for its military disadvantage against a U.S.-backed military operation during 2016 and 2017. Islamic State fighters used improvised explosives, ambushes, street barriers, and an army of drones to force the war to spread throughout the urban infrastructure — the only possible strategy allowing it to resist some 105,000 coalition forces.

Cities are also profitable for rebels. The Islamic State prioritized the reform of municipal administrations shortly after conquering cities such as Mosul and Raqqa, enforcing tax collections and sending out inspectors — as well as religious police — to verify services were running and bills were paid. Transnational smuggling rings are easily drawn to large metropolitan areas and were able to offer the Islamic State weapons, fuel, and medical supplies. Farther afield, the Pakistani megacity of Karachi serves as the main port for the heroin that funds insurgency in Afghanistan.

In Hodeida, the scene is set for a repeat of the same type of protracted urban conflict. Despite the coalition’s stated intention to minimize its operations in the city center, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees expects fighting to cluster near vital infrastructure, main roads, and other densely populated areas. The damage will almost certainly extend beyond Hodeida itself: The city is Yemen’s “agro-industrial capital” and a critical driver of development for a desperately poor country.

Aid donors, humanitarian agencies, and security experts warned, during a conference in Geneva late last year, that the impact of war on cities has become a threat to international development, as well as a humanitarian crisis. The conference, organized by the International Institute for Strategic Studies and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), concluded that the indirect effects of war on the long-term rehabilitation of critical infrastructure, industrial output, job markets, health systems, and energy supply can be as detrimental to civilians as the immediate destruction inflicted by bombs and gunfight.

The urbanization of conflict and insurgency means that governments and their militaries should be aware of the urgency of rehabilitating urban services and, when possible, leave them intact. The ICRC has advised warring parties, for instance, to avoid the use of explosive weapons in densely inhabited areas and to steer away from infrastructure that will be critical for civilian populations. There are strategic reasons for this, alongside humanitarian ones: The long-term instability and underdevelopment that follows armed conflict can fuel local tensions and increase the risk of relapsing into conflict. As cities expand across the developing world, preventing and de-escalating protracted urban conflict is one of the most critical strategic and humanitarian challenges of our time.


Antônio Sampaio is the research associate for conflict, security, and development at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), looking into the linkage between urbanization and conflict. He previously worked as a journalist in Brazil.

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