In today’s Middle East, warfare is omnipotent; from civil-war to proxy war to revolution-turned-war, it is everywhere. Evolving war tactics have not faltered in the face of international conventions and resolutions, leaving the people of the Middle East in a constant state of precarity. But the warfare that we see in the Middle East today is geared towards maximizing the damage inflicted through evolving war tactics. In recent years, there has been a rise of targeting infrastructure in cities as a means to prolong and maximize devastation.
Warfare and its devastation are no novelty to the Middle East. Headlines about things like Assad’s usage of mustard gas in Aleppo or the U.S.-produced white phosphorus Saudi Arabia used against civilians in Yemen are exemplar headlines that come out of respected journalism today. More so than not, many fail to register how life-threatening war may be without that shock-value. And while these violent happenings prove how life threatening warfare may be, it is the destruction wrought by war against urban infrastructure that has not yet to be realized.
The implications this war tactic has on civilian mortality in the Middle East are dreadful, with Physicians For Social Responsibility (PSR) estimating that 1.3 million have died in Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan since the Bush Administration declared the War on Terror in 2001, although they claim that the more accurate number is closer to two million people, not counting amounting death tolls of ongoing wars.
In September 2017, a study on the usage of attacks on infrastructure as a robust war tactic was published in Security Dialogue, detailing how these attacks can threaten human welfare, ecosystems and livelihood. These attacks are usually waged on water sanitation and waste management plants and energy infrastructure, limiting access to potable water, electricity and other crucial resources. The World Bank estimates the damage caused in Syria due to the ongoing revolution-turned-proxy-war that has dragged on for six years will cost the Arab republic $226 billion in repairs.
Earlier last month, three gunmen stormed an electrical plant 100 kilometers north of Baghdad and opened fire on security personnel before one gunman detonated his suicide vest, causing massive damage to the plant. Aside from the financial burden accrued from attacks on energy infrastructure, the lack of access to electricity poses a threat to individuals who are in the hospital or need electricity to power equipment such as flashlights, mobile phones or refrigerators. In 2014, following the onslaught of rockets and barrel bombs on the Gaza Strip, half of Gaza’s population – 900,000 people – were left without access to water or electricity.
In another attack near Deir Az-Zur, ISIS militants destroyed two water tanks in the village of Kamsha in a preemptive attempt to prevent Syrian soldiers from positioning snipers on top of the tower-like tanks. Similar to restricting access to electricity or fuel, restricted water access is a perfect breeding ground for water-borne diseases and malnutrition as a result of contaminated water. Children in Syria and elsewhere have become vulnerable to starvation and extreme dehydration due to these kinds of attacks. The cholera outbreak in Yemen is an exemplary yet unfortunate scenario for the implications that the destruction of infrastructure can have on people living in heavily targeted cities during war. The World Health Organization claims that 700,000 people suspected with infection have been treated for cholera since the war in Yemen broke out.
Authors of the study say it is difficult to quantify the effect of attacks on infrastructure since the implications they have on civilian livelihood usually snowball when studied, making the data almost impossible to collect. In densely populated urban areas like Aleppo or Sana’a, complex webs of infrastructure for water, energy and transport theoretically ensure civilians have access to resources, even if an attack were to occur on infrastructure, cutting off their access. But in rural areas, it becomes increasingly difficult to secure access to resources when the only water tank or electric plant is taken out.
As reassuring as this may sound, there are no guarantees that there will be any water or electricity when bombs rain down from the sky. It does, however, suggest that civilians in urban areas in conflict are more likely to be able to access vital resources than their rural counterparts are.
Jeannie L. Sowers, one of the authors of the study, claims that existing laws and regulations prohibiting the targeting of infrastructure have not deterred non-state actors and militaries alike from singling out infrastructure during conflicts. She suggests that: “the international community and leading states need to bolster existing laws, and further clarification is needed on what can and cannot be targeted during warfare under these laws.”
However, this perception of targeting infrastructure as a war tactic only addresses governments and ignores the engagement of guerrilla groups and paramilitaries in similar practices, rendering an international outcry somewhat irrelevant. In reality, many of ongoing wars in the Middle East are being fought between governments and paramilitary groups.
The study by Security Dialogue raises a number of questions: What can be done in regions like the Middle East, where the nature of urban conflict is so diverse? How can infrastructure be safeguarded so as to ensure that citizens will always have somewhat secure access to water and electricity? And most ephemeral of all, after the guns are withdrawn and the tanks retreat, what will become of the cities that have nothing to rebuild?