February 2016 Monthly Forecast

Posted 29 January 2016
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MIDDLE EAST

Iraq

Expected Council Action

In February, Special Representative Ján Kubiš will brief on developments in Iraq and the Secretary-General’s report on the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI).

UNAMI’s mandate expires on 31 July 2016.

Key Recent Developments

The takeover of Mosul by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in June 2014 has left the Iraqi government without control of a large swath of its territory and has led to a widespread protection crisis.

Since Kubiš last briefed the Council on 11 November 2015, the US has stated that ISIS has lost 40 percent of the territory it had previously controlled in Iraq. Gains against ISIS were achieved late last year in Baiji, Sinjar and Ramadi. These offensives have been undertaken by Iraqi government forces and Kurdish peshmerga forces, backed by the US-led anti-ISIS coalition.

The Shi’a militia Hashd al-Shaabi—or the popular mobilisation forces—have also participated in reclaiming areas from ISIS, but not in Ramadi. Shi’a militias have not been included in offensives backed by the US-led coalition in deference to the US position that Iraq’s use of Shi’a militias in Sunni areas stokes sectarian tension, deepens the distrust of the Shi’a-led government among Sunni leaders in the western provinces and entrenches support for ISIS.

The government has announced that it intends to recapture Mosul in the first half of 2016. In the lead-up to this offensive, some analysts think that the jockeying for influence has already begun, as demonstrated on 3 December 2015 when Turkey deployed an armoured battalion to the Ba’shiqa region near Mosul. On 18 December, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman briefed the Council on Iraq’s complaint regarding this Turkish deployment. The issue had also been raised by Russia in the Council on 8 December under “any other business”. Iraq called the entry of Turkish forces a provocation and a violation of international law. Turkey said the deployment was part of an existing arrangement with Iraq to train Kurdish peshmerga forces and local militias fighting ISIS. The US has been working to de-escalate the dispute and has asked Turkey to withdraw any forces not authorised by the Iraqi government. Turkey withdrew some troops to the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq but has reportedly rejected a total withdrawal.

Despite the government’s military gains against ISIS, the situation of civilians has not seen a corresponding improvement. OCHA reports that the violence between armed groups and government forces has resulted in 3.3 million internally displaced persons and 10 million people who require humanitarian assistance.

The 19 January joint report by UNAMI and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights says that almost 19,000 civilians have died since January 2014 as a result of this surge in violence. Government forces have denied displaced persons access to safe areas, and government airstrikes and shelling of civilian areas have resulted in casualties. The report details how ISIS continues to commit systematic and widespread violence, which in some instances amounts to war crimes, crimes against humanity and possibly genocide. ISIS has enslaved 3,500 women and children, mostly from Iraq’s Yazidi community. On 16 December 2015, the Council adopted a presidential statement focused on human trafficking by terrorists, with a predominant focus on how ISIS generates revenue through trafficking and the slave trade, with a particular impact on women and children.

Civilians, especially minority communities, have been hesitant to return to some liberated areas since they have no guarantees of protection. The UN and Amnesty International have separately documented abuses against Sunni Arabs committed by Iraqi and Kurdish security forces in areas reclaimed from ISIS—including looting, arbitrary arrest, forcible displacement and extra-judicial killings—in retaliation for perceived support for ISIS.

Following the recapture of Ramadi, the first major victory against ISIS in Iraq, Kubiš said that for military advances against ISIS to hold, the government, in cooperation with the UN, would have to work quickly to restore the rule of law and basic services, and thus give civilians confidence that it was safe to return. This has been a consistent message from UNAMI regarding all areas liberated from ISIS, but particularly in relation to the Sunni provinces, which have a strained relationship with the Shi’a-led government in Baghdad.

Aside from military offensives against ISIS, persistent sectarian violence has been exacerbated by Saudi Arabia’s execution of Shi’a cleric Nimr al-Nimr on 2 January—one day after Saudi Arabia reopened its embassy in Baghdad for the first time since 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait. A wave of demonstrations in Iraq and attacks on Sunni mosques ensued. There were also attacks on Saudi diplomatic premises in Iran following the execution, which led Saudi Arabia and Iran to sever diplomatic ties. Council members issued a press statement on 4 January condemning the attacks on Saudi diplomatic premises in Iran and calling on parties to reduce tensions in the region. Following a trip to Tehran, Iraq’s foreign minister expressed concern over escalating regional tension and offered to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

There was further reprisal violence against Sunnis after ISIS attacks against Shi’a areas of Baghdad and Muqdadiya on 11 January left at least 50 people dead.  Council members condemned the attacks in a press statement. The reprisal violence caused Iraqi Sunni parliamentarians to boycott government sessions on 19 January.

In addition to the dire security situation, Iraq is facing a potential fiscal crisis because of plummeting global oil prices, the impasse over Kurdish oil exports, a bloated government payroll, corruption, and the cost of fighting ISIS. UNAMI leadership has emphasised that an effective partnership between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) based in Erbil is critical to Iraq’s stability and to the fight against ISIS. Implementation of a December 2014 agreement on oil exports and revenue sharing has been stymied since June 2015 because of a stalemate between Baghdad and Erbil. Baghdad claims that the KRG did not export a sufficient amount of oil through the central government, and the KRG claims that it did not receive its expected share of the federal budget. The KRG has resumed its autonomous exportation of oil via Turkey.

There has been discussion of the KRG renegotiating oil exports with Baghdad, but that has been delayed by the political uncertainty in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region since its president, Massoud Barzani, has stayed in office after his term ended in August 2015. The Kurdish political crisis intensified when Barzani’s ruling party unilaterally expelled rival Parliament Speaker Yousif Mohammed from government in October 2015. 

Key Issues

The key issue for the Council is promoting a genuinely inclusive government.  A related issue is determining how the Council and UNAMI can encourage greater cooperation on security and humanitarian issues between the dominant Shi’a Dawa party of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Kurdish and Sunni parliamentarians, and thereby build confidence in the central government and fortify Iraq’s response to ISIS.

Another issue is how to address the mutually destabilising impact of the war in Syria and the Iraq crisis.

Options

Options seem limited since the security response to ISIS is happening outside the Council’s purview. However, an option is to adopt a statement calling for the government to work towards enhanced security and humanitarian coordination with the KRG and Sunni leaders, and for UNAMI to support the government in that effort. In such a statement, the Council could also condemn human rights violations by ISIS and associated armed groups (an indirect reference to former Baathists and Sunni tribal leaders) as well as by Iraqi security forces and associated armed groups (an indirect reference to Shi’a militias).

Such a statement could also call on the government to cooperate with UNAMI in areas that may require enhanced mission activities, such as human rights, rule of law, electoral assistance, security sector reform, stabilisation activities in areas liberated from ISIS and best practices for child protection and gender policies.

Council Dynamics

Council members uniformly support UNAMI and believe that the mission’s mandate is sufficiently broad and flexible to allow Kubiš to fulfil the mission’s good-offices role. However, the Council has been largely disengaged from grappling with the underlying political divisions among Iraq’s Shi’a, Sunni and Kurdish populations, beyond bland calls for an inclusive government.

Except through the lens of counter-terrorism, Council members have been unable to approach the connected crises in Iraq and Syria holistically. It is likely that they will continue to treat the two situations as discrete issues. Condemning the Tehran-backed regime in Damascus is difficult to reconcile with supporting the Tehran- and US-backed government in Baghdad. Some Council members will be watching with interest whether Abadi will be able to maintain his current balance of good relations with Riyadh and Tehran once Iran experiences the economic relief of lifted sanctions.

The US is the penholder on Iraq issues in general, and the UK is the penholder on Iraq-Kuwait issues.

UN Documents

Security Council Resolution
29 July 2015 S/RES/2233 This resolution renewed UNAMI for a year.
Security Council Presidential Statement
16 December 2015 S/PRST/2015/25 This was a presidential statement on trafficking in persons in situations of conflict, with a particular focus on ISIS and the impact on women and children.
Security Council Press Statements
12 January 2016 SC/12197 This was a statement condemning 11 January ISIS attacks.
4 January 2016 SC/12190 This was a statement that condemned the attacks on the Saudi diplomatic premises in Iran.
Security Council Meeting Records
18 December 2015 S/PV.7589 This was a briefing by Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman on Iraq’s complaint regarding the Turkish deployment of an armoured battalion to the Ba’shiqa region near Mosul.
11 November 2015 S/PV.7556 This was a briefing on the situation in Iraq.
Security Council Letter
11 December 2015 S/2015/963 This was a letter transmitting Iraq’s complaint regarding the Turkish deployment of an armoured battalion to the Ba’shiqa region near Mosul.
Secretary-General’s Reports
28 October 2015 S/2015/826 This was the report of the Secretary-General on Iraq/Kuwait missing persons and property.
26 October 2015 S/2015/819 This was the Secretary-General’s report on UNAMI.