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Boris Johnson wants Britain to use soft power. The first place must be Mosul

The Iraqi advance on the Islamic State-held city has trapped civilians, including 600,000 children. UK influence could help get them out safely

Speaking at the Conservative party conference last month Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, set out a vision of Britain as a “soft power superpower”, projecting values through influence, ideas and the power of persuasion. If ever there were a time and a place for exercising our national soft power, that time is now – and the place is Mosul.

The Iraqi government has lannched its long-anticipated assault to reclaim the city from Islamic State with backing from the US, the UK and an international alliance. The symbolic importance of the battle can hardly be over-stated. It was from Mosul that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Isis leader, declared his caliphate.

But how the battle for Mosul is won will also matter. Military victory is all but assured. The danger is that it will be secured at the price of mass civilian casualties and an avoidable humanitarian catastrophe – and that is where judicious use of the UK’s soft power could make a difference.

The early warning signs are already visible. As the advance on Mosul has gathered pace, the flow of displaced civilians has mounted. Save the Children staff near Hawija, another battle front some 100 miles south of Mosul, are dealing with young children arriving on the verge of starvation. Many have escaped Hawija, evaded Isis checkpoints and trekked for 36 hours on perilous mountain paths across terrain laced with improvised landmines. The humanitarian response has been hampered by a chronically under-funded appeal that has left reception centres desperately short of food, water and medicines.

Far worse could be in store. Much of the civilian population is now concentrated in the old city on the eastern bank of the Tigris. This is the poorest part of Mosul. If Iraqi forces mount an artillery barrage or unleash irregular militias, the scenes from Mosul could mirror the horror of eastern Aleppo. The 600,000 children living in the city will inevitably figure prominently in the body count.

Escaping Mosul is not easy. Civilians are understandably loth to negotiate Isis roadblocks, and fearful of what may lie on the other side. But once the fighting starts in earnest, people will move. The UN estimates that more than 1 million people could flee the city.

This is a predictable humanitarian emergency that could have been planned for in advance. Yet only half of the UN’s $284m emergency appeal has been funded – and the six camps that have been established are currently equipped to accommodate fewer than 60,000 people. For the purposes of comparison, try imagining the entire population of Birmingham on the move and a humanitarian effort to cater for a population half the size of Sutton Coldfield.

So how can the UK exercise soft power in defence of fundamental values such as the protection of children in conflict, upholding humanitarian law and minimising civilian casualties?

In marked contrast to the situation in Aleppo, the UK has both direct and indirect influence in Iraq

In marked contrast to the situation in Aleppo, the UK has both direct and indirect influence in Iraq. Along with other coalition partners, the UK is extensively involved in training local forces: more than 18,000 Iraqi security forces and peshmerga have been trained to date. Britain’s armed forces are on the ground around Mosul, along with American counterparts, providing advice on tactics – and the UK is part of an alliance that carries weight with the Iraqi government.

Soft-power engagement should start with the clear message that Iraqi commanders on the ground must protect civilians. The mistakes, including the indiscriminate artillery bombardments that led to mass civilian casualties in cities such as Falluja and Ramadi must not be repeated.

It is already clear that insufficient preparation has been made for civilian protection. Military commanders have used radio broadcasts to instruct families and children trapped in Mosul to stay inside and put white flags on their homes. At best this will be ineffective. At worst it will turn civilians into identifiable human shields. This is downright unacceptable.

One of the most urgent priorities now is for military commanders to identify, open and maintain safe humanitarian routes in and out of Mosul as troops advance. Both regular military and irregular forces need to understand that failure to protect humanitarian access is a violation of the Geneva conventions – and a war crime.

But facilitating safe exit is just part of the equation. The UK should now launch a major international initiative aimed at closing the financing gap for humanitarian provision. My colleagues in Save the Children will be administering one of the camps. But our preparations, like those of other humanitarian agencies, have been hampered by chronic funding deficits. Make no mistake: failure to close these deficits will hurt children who have suffered enough and surely have the right to expect our best effort.

Mosul is more than a test of military strength. In a region where the bottom line of what is acceptable in armed conflict has been lowered to the point of disappearance, it is a chance to reassert international human rights. And for the UK, Mosul is an opportunity to demonstrate that soft power can be effectively deployed in the defence of children whose lives are on the line. If there is a better cause, I cannot think of one.

This article was first published in The Guardian, October 2016

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