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Terror, Aleppo and Mosul: three styles of urban warfare

The truck that crashed into a Christmas market in Berlin, killing 12 and wonding dozens.

The truck that crashed into a Christmas market in Berlin, killing 12 and

wounding dozens.

Pro-government Syrian forces amid snow in Aleppo this week.

Pro-government Syrian forces amid snow in Aleppo this week.

A boy sits with belongings collected from the rubble of his house in Aleppo last week.

A boy sits with belongings collected from the rubble of his house in Aleppo

last week.

As Aleppo’s ordeal ends, Americans and their allies are in their own urban fight around Mosul. These twin battles illustrate how the world’s militaries have been forced to relearn combat in cities.

Three distinct styles — we might loosely call them the Russian, “caliphate” and American schools of urban warfare — are having a direct impact in Iraq and Syria, with effects radiating outward to places such as Berlin and Ankara.

The Russian school was the earliest to appear, growing from the Chechen wars of the 1990s, with later adaptations in Georgia and Crimea. It has profoundly shaped the campaign in Aleppo.


The Russian school of urban warfare

Russia’s first post-Soviet war began in Grozny, the Chechen capital, on New Year’s Eve 1994. The battle was a disaster: entire units were wiped out, with huge losses of personnel and equipment. The defeat was due, in part, to overconfidence: the expectation that a show of force, as in Czechoslovakia in 1968, would quickly cow the population. This failed utterly — a failure compounded, once battle began, by misguided tactics.

After “demonstration” airstrikes that did little damage but alerted the defenders, Russian commanders sent massed columns of armoured vehicles without infantry, artillery or engineer support into Grozny, where they were encircled by fast-moving, well-armed irregular fighters, many with experience in the Soviet armed forces, who knew the city better than the soldiers did.

Moving where tanks couldn’t go — inside sewers and buildings, along alleys and across rooftops — the Chechens inflicted huge damage on Russian units that could barely bring their tank barrels to bear, let alone manoeuvre in the narrow, unfamiliar streets. One Russian column lost 105 out of 120 vehicles in its first engagement, while another was surrounded in Grozny’s central railway station and annihilated almost to the last man. The Russians counterattacked with a steamroller offensive that took months, killed 35,000 Chechen civilians (including 5000 children), flattened vast areas of Grozny, and entailed the heaviest bombardment in Europe since 1945. They eventually captured the city’s shattered ruins, only to withdraw 18 months later. Chechen separatists moved in, and extremist groups quickly came to dominate the city.

By 1999 a series of bombings in Russian cities, blamed on separatists, prompted Moscow to recapture Grozny and deal with the Chechen “menace” once and for all. Russia’s young and energetic prime minister, Vladimir Putin, who had taken office in mid-­August that year, oversaw the assault, which began in October 1999, with a careful encirclement and blockade.

This time things went dramatically better. Capturing outlying towns and hills, Russian forces isolated Grozny from the outside, emplaced heavy artillery around it, then methodically knocked the city to pieces with massive Scud missiles, airstrikes and artillery.

After weeks of bombardment, ground troops moved in — but this time the Russians held back the large tank columns. Instead, they employed small mixed combat groups of 20 to 50 soldiers, with three to five armoured vehicles, an artillery piece or two, and assault engineers with demolition charges, flamethrowers and powerful fuel-air explosives.

These smaller groups, trained in urban combat, could man­oeuvre more readily in the devastated streetscape, dispersing as their Chechen enemies did, but concentrating fire when it was needed to overpower them.

The tactics worked: by May 2000, Grozny was recaptured and Chechen allies (mentored by Russian Spetsnaz special-purpose forces) were left to hold the city while the main Russian formations pursued the Chechens towards the Georgian border. Russia poured money into rebuilding, while handing control to local partners. Putin became President on May 7, 2000, in part because of his success in the second Chechen war.

The tenets of the Russian school of urban combat, as it evolved in Chechnya, were blockade, bombard, break-in, transition. This is a good description of the Aleppo campaign — in part because of Russian influence on Syrian and Iranian tactics following Putin’s intervention in Syria last year.

Soon after Russia intervened, planning began for the move against Aleppo, which started last February and progressed steadily through each of these stages.

Even earlier, in 2013-14, Syrian forces began to adopt Russian tactics under the influence of their advisers.

The addition of Russian aircraft — operating from bases in northwest Syria and, more recently, from Russia’s only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov — was a huge help to Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

One novel element in Aleppo was the appearance of a new special operations unit formed in 2012, which first saw action in 2014 during the Sochi Winter Olympics as well as in Crimea. Known as KSO, Special Operations Command, this is a small (battalion-sized) organisation designed to mimic America’s Delta Force. A Russian delegation visited US Special Operations Command in 2012 to study the American system, and the resulting Russian unit is equipped exactly like Western elite forces.

In a video released last week, KSO operators can be seen fighting through the streets of Aleppo, using close-quarter battle tactics virtually identical to those of America’s Joint Special Operations Command or Australia’s Special Air Service Regiment, and wearing helmets, headsets, night-vision devices and uniforms indistinguishable from those of Western special operators.

This is a departure from the tradi­tional Russian approach, where Spetsnaz troops usually operate under the control of airborne forces or military intelligence control, more like elite light infantry than Western-style “black role” special forces. In part, KSO’s combat debut in Aleppo mirrored Russia’s showcasing of advanced missiles and aircraft in Syria, a propaganda effort to demonstrate its military modernisation. In part, though, it reflects the reality of modern combat against a deadly adversary applying the “caliphate” school of urban warfare.

The ‘caliphate’ school of urban warfare

When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi climbed into the pulpit of Mosul’s Grand Mosque to declare the “caliphate” in July 2014, he did so on the back of a remarkable string of urban victories. In just 100 days, Islamic State fighters had captured the Iraqi cities of Tikrit and Mosul, taken parts of Fallujah, seized several smaller cities and towns, and threatened the outskirts of Baghdad. They did so thanks to an evolving approach to urban combat that paralleled the Russian development.

Indeed, the two were connected: Chechen separatists fleeing Russia after their defeat in Grozny found themselves in Syria and Iraq with jihadist groups where their combat experience gave them outsize influence. Until he was killed in a US airstrike last July, for example, the Islamic State commander in northern Syria was “Abu Omar the Chechen” (Abu Omar al-Shishani, whose actual name was Tarkhan Batirashvili). He was a Chechen from Georgia who fought in the second Chechen war and the Russo-Georgian War of 2008, then moved to Syria where he led an “Emigrants Brigade” that included many Chechens, and helped found Islamic State in May 2013.

Beside the Chechens, another profound influence on the caliphate school of urban warfare was the experience gained fighting American and Iraqi troops during the US-led occupation of Iraq. This taught al-Qa’ida in Iraq (later rebranded as Islamic State) some hard-won lessons, including the need to stay mobile in defence, mount immediate counter-attacks, and infiltrate enemy lines in small groups wherever possible.

After the Americans left, AQI put these lessons to use against the Iraqi army and police. Mohammed al-Jolani, today the head of al-Qa’ida’s affiliate in Syria, was AQI’s chief for Mosul during the American occupation, learning urban combat while faced with legendary adversaries such as David Petraeus and HR McMaster. Other Islamic State veterans learned urban warfare during the battles of Fallujah in 2004, and in Baghdad, Ramadi and Baqubah during the 2007-08 “surge”.

Emerging from this was an approach that mimicked Russian methods in some ways but was very different in others. Like the Russians, Islamic State learned to organise in small (30 to 40-member) combat groups with a mix of light and heavy weapons, armoured and soft-skinned vehicles, mortars and mobile artillery. Again like the Russians, these groups moved independently when out of combat but could rapidly concentrate to assist each other when necessary. In the past two years, on the Kurdish front near Irbil, as many as 15 combat groups have collaborated at times in large-scale attacks before melting away.

Borrowing from the Chechen experience, they included anti-­armour teams with rocket-propelled grenades and snipers able to infiltrate sewers, rooftops and back alleys to target headquarters and rear areas. They also made extensive use of improvised explosives, from roadside bombs to suicide vests and car bombs.

Lacking the air power of the Russians and Americans, Islamic State substituted suicide bombers. Massive suicide truck bombs covered in armour plate and packed with explosives — eight-tonne dump trucks, armoured fuel tankers, even on one occasion a semi-trailer packed with chlorine cylinders — were used to breach defended lines or target enemy installations, much as conventional troops would use guided missiles.

Sometimes the weight of fire was as intense as any airstrike: in Ramadi in May last year, for example, Islamic State launched seven suicide bombers in the first 90 minutes, then more than 20 others across the next day, overwhelming defenders with explosions that flattened whole city blocks, Grozny-style.

They also developed precision artillery fire by repurposing consumer electronics. In Syria, for example, mortar teams use compass and inclinometer apps on smartphones to lay the bearing and elevation for their mortars, selecting the elevation and charge from firing tables downloaded from the internet. Once they fire their first adjusting round, a remote observer (who need not even be near the target) puts a pin in Google Earth to mark the shot, and the team adjusts fire from there.

As a result, irregular forces are achieving precision akin to nation-state militaries — ironically enough, exploiting US-designed smartphones and a navigation tool, the Global Positioning System, developed by the US military.

Islamic State also has mastered the tactical use of terror. Unlike a traditional terror attack, designed to achieve a political purpose, the group uses attacks across weeks or months as a military tool, shaping an enemy into a defensive posture, pinning troops and police in garrison tasks that alienate locals and make it hard to manoeuvre.

In early 2014 in Mosul, for example, Islamic State mounted dozens of terror attacks, forcing the Iraqi army’s 2nd Division and the Iraqi police to construct checkpoints across the city.

When on June 10, 2014, a column of 800 Islamic State fighters turned up — organised in the now familiar mixed combat groups of 30 to 40 fighters and manoeuvring with conventional tactics — Iraqi forces were so tied up in static defence that they lacked the reserves to manoeuvre and were quickly beaten. Something similar happened in Kunduz, in Afghanistan, last year and again this year, showing the Taliban has picked up on the same idea.

The “caliphate” school of urban warfare, as it has emerged — and is playing out today in Syria and Iraq — can be summarised as mobile, networked terror.

We saw an instance of the second element in this week’s assassination of Andrei Karlov, Russia’s ambassador to Turkey, and perhaps in the Berlin Christmas market attack. In the first case, the assassin (who shouted “remember Aleppo”) seemed to be seeking retribution for Russia’s efforts in Syria.

The Berlin attack was yet another example of a depressingly familiar pattern — the remote radicalisation of individuals and networks, hiding within large and overwhelmingly innocent refugee and immigrant communities, to strike back at countries contributing to the fight against the “caliphate”. This is urban warfare, but globally networked so that the counter-attack may be in a different city, just as remote observers with smartphones can now direct artillery they never see, in countries they have never visited. This use of technology to overcome geography is typical of the American school of urban warfare.

American school of urban warfare

When the Americans invaded Iraq at the head of a coalition in 2003, the plan was emphatically not for a long urban occupation. The idea, rather, was to sweep into Baghdad, overthrow Saddam Hussein, hand power to a designated successor (banker turned visionary Ahmed Chalabi) and leave. This proved about as realistic as the Russian plan to overawe Chechens with tanks in 1994.

Coalition forces quickly found themselves mired in a nasty urban counter-insurgency and, in the 13 years since, through battles in Fallujah, Tikrit, Ramadi and Baghdad, a distinctly American school of urban warfare — heavily reliant on air power, precision munitions, local allies and elite forces — emerged.

The approach evolved through three phases. From 2003 until early 2006, coalition forces launched raids and large cordon-and-search operations in urban areas, trying to keep the enemy off balance while training local allies to take over as soon as possible. Airborne surveillance from satellites, aircraft, aerostats and drones helped cue ground reconnaissance to identify insurgents. Raiding forces would then kill or capture them, and intelligence teams would analyse their mobile phones, biometric data and pocket litter to decide where to strike next. Though highly efficient in taking terrorists off the street, this failed to protect the population, while large sweeps alienated whole towns and districts.

In the second phase, from mid-2006, a new generation of commanders switched focus from the enemy towards protecting the population. This began to bear fruit in early 2007, in the surge, when enough troops were finally available to make people safe where they slept. Technology — and killing the enemy through the surveillance-raiding-intelligence cycle developed earlier — still played a huge role in the surge, but it was a new concept for partnering with Iraq’s Sunni community that ultimately made Iraq’s cities safe again and destroyed more than 95 per cent of AQI.

By 2009, in the third phase, the approach shifted back to mentor­ing, with increasing reliance on elite forces for raiding, aircraft and drones for surveillance and strikes, and intelligence networks to dismantle and disrupt enemy cells. As forces drew down in Iraq, a smaller build-up began in Afghanistan, and these methods brought similar (though short-lived) success there too. When Islamic State reappeared in 2014, Western troops — mainly advisers, trainers and specialists — returned to Iraq.

The key elements of the American school of urban warfare can be seen in the Mosul campaign, which developed throughout the year in roughly the same time­frame as Aleppo. It can be sum­marised as protection, sur­veillance, intelligence and strike.

Obviously, one element of the old surge model is no longer in the mix: now that Western troops are no longer in the lead, the critical task of protecting and partnering with the population (which, by definition, requires a lot of troops) has been outsourced.

This is a key problem in Mosul: if local partners lack the skill or political credibility to gain the trust of the population, the outsourced model may fall apart.

A second problem is tempo. To be sure, the American school of urban warfare helps prevent civilian casualties and avoids major damage to the urban environment. Mosul is in dramatically better shape than Aleppo, even after two years of Islamic State opposition and months of allied air strikes. But it takes much longer, dragging out conflicts and burning political capital that is in short supply. Mosul has been occupied since June 2014, and it may take another six months before it’s fully secured. The Russian model, brutal and destructive though it undoubtedly is, seems at least to be quicker.

But it’s the “caliphate” approach — with its strikes in distant countries or counter-offensives in other cities — that is likely to have the biggest impact in the coming year. Islamic State played little or no role in Aleppo, but Mosul (with Raqqa) is one of its two key strongholds. Already Islamic State has mounted major counter-attacks in Kirkuk, Irbil, and Baghdad. Last week it recaptured Palmyra.

And in Europe, Africa and elsewhere in the Middle East, Islamic State affiliates and networks are able to strike back to counteract their loss of Mosul.

As Aleppo begins its clean-up and Mosul enters its third month of combat, the places to watch may be more Ankaras and Berlins.

David Kilcullen is a former lieutenant-colonel in the Australian Army and was a senior adviser to US general David Petraeus in 2007-08, when he helped to design the surge in Iraq.

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