Cities in Conflict

This is an article published in our April/May 2017 Compendium.

MOUT scenarios
Today military forces are often involved in a number of MOUT scenarios, such as US combat operations in the Iraqi city of Mosul in 2003. (US DOD)

One could argue that the strategic importance of cities in a conflict is not a new concept. Historically, cities were used for protection by the population that lived within their walls, while fighting took place outside the city walls, or on its ramparts.

Once the attacking army had succeeded in destroying the city walls, or once the population had surrendered after years of famine and disease caused by siege, the enemy walked into the city, took what they wanted or needed and then either destroyed the place, or moved on anew as part of their overall campaign. A number of historic battles contribute to the common belief that military operations against cities form an intrinsic part of strategy; notable examples include the fall of Constantinople which was captured from the Byzantine Empire by the Ottoman Empire on 29 May 1453, the siege of Sebastopol that lasted one year (1854-1855) during the Crimean war when the allied powers of France, the Ottoman Empire, Sardinia and the United Kingdom captured the city, located in the southeast of Russia. During the 20th Century, the siege of Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina by the Bosnian Serb Army lasted from 5 April 1992 until 29 February 1996 (see below).

Frédéric Chamaud and Colonel Pierre Santoni in their book L’Ultime Champ de Bataille: Combattre et Vaincre en Ville (‘The Ultimate Battlefield: Fighting and Winning in the City’) published in 2016 wrote that: “Cities have been surrounded, bombarded, starved, then pillaged and destroyed … but in almost every case, the city was not a battleground.” It is only on the doorstep of the Second World War, during the Spanish Civil War from 1936 to 1939, that the battleground moved into the city centre: during the Battle of Madrid, which raged from 8 November 1936 until 28 March 1939, when the city held by Republican forces was besieged by the Nationalist armies of General Francisco Franco.

Moving Outside In

Gen. Franco believed that taking Madrid would only be a matter of days, and would send a powerful message to adversaries and international allies (notably Germany and Italy) alike. His armies made their first assault on the Republican bastion on 29 October 1936. However, far better prepared for manoeuvre in open spaces rather than in city streets, the Nationalists were repeatedly pushed back and contained for the next three years by the Republican forces that used the capital’s geography to their advantage. Madrid eventually fell in 1939, but it was more the result of the Republicans’ general defeat across the country, rather than a Nationalist operational victory. The city retained a powerful symbolism throughout the civil war: between 1936 and 1939 it symbolised Republican resistance, whereas in 1939 it became a symbol of Nationalist victory and power: “Following on from the Spanish Civil War, the city became a key battleground because it represented the centre of power,” said Col. Santoni in an interview with Armada who, in addition to co-authoring L’Ultime Champ de Bataille, was the French Army’s commanding officer for its Centre d’Entraînement en Zone Urbaine (Urban Zone Training Centre) located in northeast France between 2012 and 2014. A number of decisive battles took place in cities during the Second World War, including the Germans’ defeat at the hands of the Red Army in Stalingrad (now Volgograd) in southeast Russia on 2 February 1943, and during the siege of Budapest when the city was liberated by the Red Army and their Romanian Allies from German and Hungarian forces after a siege lasting from 29 December 1944 until 13 February 1945. Perhaps most famously, during the Second World War, the Red Army administered the coup de grace to Germany’s Nazi regime during the Battle of Berlin fought between 16 April and 2 May 1945.

Nevertheless, while during the Second World War cities had mainly become battlegrounds for national belligerents, a new trend emerged with the wave of wars of independence and civil wars, which took place during the 1960s and 1980s following the break-up of the colonial empires of Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Portugal and the United Kingdom following the end of the Second World War, and the Cold War struggles between the Soviet Union-led communist and US-led Western blocs. According to Col. Santoni: “during (these) wars of independence that took place in Africa and Asia, Western armies faced a new enemy that had understood that knowledge of one’s city was a key advantage against an enemy with better capabilities.”

According to the book L’Ultime Champ de Bataille, the overt US intervention in the Vietnam War between 1965 and 1975 has a notable example of this trend; the Battle of Hué in central Vietnam between January and March 1968. On 31 January 1968 the city, which was defended by the US Army and Marine Corps (USMC), and the South Vietnamese Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), fell to the Viet Cong (VC) insurgent organisation, and their North Vietnamese People’s Army of Vietnam (PAV) allies, in a surprise attack during the Tet Offensive; a large offensive launched by the VC and PAV on 30 January 1968 against ARVN and US forces. Within hours, the VC had occupied all the key buildings in the city, such as government buildings and places of worship, and had raised their flag. It took the US Army, the ARVN and the USMC three months to reclaim the city for two reasons: Firstly, there was an initial reluctance from the US and ARVN to destroy some of the buildings the VC were hiding in, including Buddhist temples and the city’s Imperial Palace. This allowed the VC to continue re-supplying their forces and to stand their ground. Secondly, while the VC displayed great determination and strong organisational skills, including the establishment of defensive perimeters around their areas, US forces and the ARVN faced coordination issues: The nature of fighting in the city required different battalions to attack from different axes, therefore complicating communication between them and thus necessitating more autonomy for each battalion. It was only when they regrouped and secured the support of heavy artillery and aviation units that they succeeded in eliminating their VC and ARVN adversaries and reclaiming the city.

The lessons learned from Hué and other battles fought by the US following the Second World War are reflected in the development of the Field Manual for Military Operations on Urbanised Terrain (MOUT) for the US Army in August 1979. Its introduction stated that: “Urban combat operations may be conducted in order to capitalise on the strategic or tactical advantages which possession or control of a particular urban area gives or to deny these advantages to the enemy.” Much like the symbolism of Madrid during the Spanish Civil War or the Battle of Berlin (see above) what happens in the city: “may yield decisive psychological advantages that frequently determine the success or failure of the larger conflict,” the manual continues.

Soldiers and Cities

The end of the Cold War in 1991 marked a new turning point for the city in the context of war. Countries whose independence was fought and gained during this epoch thanks to the support of their US or Soviet allies were suddenly left to fend for themselves, characterised by weak political institutions while struggling to face the economic insecurities arguably caused by the onset of globalisation’s strong market driven economy. Thus, as this discussion will illustrate, cities not only became the spaces where globalisation met with local expectations and desires; they also progressively became the main sites for elements of civil society contesting and confronting the institutional powers which were failing those expectations and desires.

The 1990s thus saw a wave of new wars where cities became the theatres of bloody conflicts between economically and/or politically disenfranchised population elements and contested power holders. In this context, the post-Cold War era has seen military operations, as discussed below, increasingly including Western interventions intended to halt conflicts and enforce conditions conducive to peace and post-conflict reconstruction. These new missions have encompassed a whole new set of challenges for military operations, particularly regarding cities. The first major example of such a trend was witnessed in Bosnia and Herzegovina, notably during the Siege of Sarajevo.

Sniper alley
During the siege in Sarajevo in between 1992 and 1995, the ‘Dragon of Bosnia’ street had been nicknamed ‘Sniper alley’ as Bosnian Serb gunmen shot people at random. (Wikimedia Commons)

Space is insufficient here to provide a detailed discussion of the factors behind the break-up of Yugoslavia in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Nevertheless, broadly speaking, demands for more regional autonomy amongst Yugoslavia’s ethnically diverse population, coupled with dissatisfaction towards the government in Belgrade from some elements of the Yugoslav population precipitated the country’s gradual disintegration. Part and parcel of this disintegration was the Bosnian War, which commenced on 6 April 1992 and which pitted the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and the Croatian Community of Herzegovina against the Republika Srpska, Yugoslav Armed Forces and the Republic of Serbian Krajina. The war that ravaged Bosnia until December 1995 is perhaps most infamous for returning mass graves, ethnic cleansing and concentration camps to Europe fifty years after the end of the Second World War. It is also remembered for the siege by Republica Srpska forces of its capital, Sarajevo, which continued for three years, ending only in September 1995 following the commencement of Operation DELIBERATE FORCE by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) on 30 August 1995; during which air strikes were performed by NATO combat aircraft against Republika Srpska forces to undermine the latter’s military capability.

During the three and a half years siege, one particular thoroughfare, Zmaja od Bosne (‘Dragon of Bosnia’) Street, in Sarajevo became known as ‘Sniper Alley’: A wide street in the centre of the city, Sniper Alley saw Bosnian Serb gunmen positioned on top of buildings regularly shooting unsuspecting victims picked at random, not only civilians, but also UN (United Nations) peacekeepers deployed from 1992 to Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina from the UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR). Amongst other duties, UNPROFOR had the task of protecting so-called Safe Havens in both areas established to protect civilians, of which Sarajevo was one.

According to Col. Santoni: “conflicts in the city last far longer than they used to in open spaces, not only because the new rules of engagement dictate that the population should be protected at all costs, but also because the urban environment, with all the opportunities for surprise attacks it provides to the ‘local fighters’, balances out the advantages of today’s technologies available to Western armies.” They also require a balancing act for intervening in a conflict, according to L’Ultime Champs de Bataille: “units (engaged in urban combat) must be able to master the entire spectrum of operations, from non-lethal anti-riot action to gun fights against (insurgents).” Current military operations involving the Iraqi armed forces, allied militias, Iraqi Kurdistan and US-led international forces dubbed Operation QADIMUM YA NAYNAWA (‘We Are Coming Nineveh’; a reference to the Nineveh Government, an Iraqi province on the outskirts of Mosul) which commenced on 16 October 2016 to liberate the northern Iraqi city of Mosul from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) insurgent movement, exemplify these complexities.

MOUT scenarios
Today military forces are often involved in a number of MOUT scenarios, such as US combat operations in the Iraqi city of Mosul in 2003. (US DOD)

MOUT Manuals

The UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs, in its 2014 revised publication World Urbanisation Prospects, stated: “The planet has gone through a process of rapid urbanisation over the past six decades … In 2014, 54 percent of the world’s population (was) urban. The urban population is expected to continue to grow, so that by 2050, the world will be one-third rural (34 percent) and two-thirds urban (66 percent), roughly the reverse of the global rural-urban population distribution of the mid-twentieth century.” As cities continue to grow and represent centres of struggle for economic, political and cultural power, they will continue to be a key determinant in each and every conflict that ensues from these struggles.

General Alain Bouquin, Thales’ army advisor, says that: “Now there are four scenario for military involvement in cities: support to national security forces, such as the presence of 10000 French military personnel on national territory since (the ISIS acts of political violence) perpetrated in Paris in 2015; control of an urban area, such as the (French Army) peacekeeping mission in Gao, southern Mali; counter-insurgency external operations, such as (UN) operations in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993; and, the reclaiming of a city from the adversary, such as what is currently happening in Mosul.” NATO nomenclature refers to these operations as Fighting in Built-Up Areas (FIBUA), and its report Urban Operations in the Year 2020, published in 2003, defines them as: “those military and other activities in an area of operation, where significant defining characteristics are man-made structures, associated urban infrastructures and non-combatant populations.” In the US, these operations are referred to as Military Operations in Urban Terrain (MOUT), and the Marine Corps’ doctrinal guidance document Military Operations in Urbanised Terrain published in May 2016, defines them as: “all military actions planned and conducted on a topographical complex and its adjacent terrain where man-made construction is the dominant feature. It includes combat in cities, which is that portion of MOUT involving house-to-house and street-by-street fighting in towns and cities.” For the purpose of this publication, the term ‘MOUT’ has been chosen as an arguably more comprehensive concept.

by Dr. Alix Valenti