Political Affairs Chief to Brief on Middle East and Terrorism in the Region
On Monday (23 June), Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman will brief the Council during its monthly consideration of the Middle East. His public comments will likely focus on the current crisis challenging the nascent Fatah-Hamas reconciliation and unity government in Palestine due to the Israeli military response to the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank. Other issues will likely include the lack of a credible path toward a political solution following the failure of US-mediated peace talks on 29 April and hunger-striking Palestinian prisoners under Israeli administrative detention. During the following consultations, Feltman will present a separate assessment of terrorist threats in the region, in particular in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
Terrorism in the Region
The briefing on the threat of terrorism in the Middle East was requested by Russia during the 12 June consultations on Iraq shortly after the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) had spearheaded its surprise takeover of Mosul on 10 June.
Most Council members will be interested in how this assessment will offer anything new beyond what is already widely reported in the media and what is already discussed in the Council’s own counter-terrorism subsidiary bodies. ISIS, al-Nusra (operating in Syria), and Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (operating in Yemen) have already been listed under the 1267/1989 Al-Qaida sanctions regime.
Council members expect to hear about the proliferation of territorial control by ISIS from eastern Syria into northwestern Iraq and the threat this poses to the region as well as broader international security implications given that ISIS includes fighters recruited from across the world, including Europe and other Western countries. Yemen’s offensive against Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula which began in April, may also be at the forefront of Council members’ minds following Special Adviser on Yemen Jamal Benomar’s briefing earlier today (20 June).
Council members may also be interested in hearing more about what, if any, counter-terrorism efforts are underway in Iraq and Syria, as well as security efforts in neighboring countries. It is possible that in this context, Jordan’s recent actions on its eastern border with Iraq may be raised. ISIS has been in control of most of Anbar province, including Fallujah and parts of Ramadi, for months, but following the fall of Mosul to ISIS, Iraq largely withdrew its forces from Anbar province to safeguard Baghdad. Feeling exposed, Jordan has increased deployment of its security forces to its 180-kilometer long border with Iraq to prevent the spread of ISIS into Jordan.
Council members may also want an update on the status of the strategic city of Baiji, about 190 kilometers north of Baghdad, due to the ongoing fighting between the government and ISIS for control of the Baiji refinery. This refinery, the largest in Iraq, can process up to 310,000 barrels of oil a day, about one-third of the total refining capacity in Iraq. Although it mainly supplies domestic consumption in northern Iraq, its loss to ISIS would be a blow to the government of Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, and could potentially have an effect on fuel supplies further south.
Regarding the forces aligning themselves to battle ISIS in Iraq, some Council members may be interested in knowing more about the reported presence and potential future deployment of more Islamic Revolutionary Guard Units from Iran. This may be of interest, and concern, to Council members due to the fact that, although the Revolutionary Guard Units are not as a whole designated for targeted sanctions by the 1737 Iran non-proliferation sanctions regime, their senior leadership is designated under resolutions 1737 (2006) and 1747 (2007) alongside some entities owned, controlled or acting on behalf of the Revolutionary Guards. The Maliki government, and the state and non-state actors that come to its military rescue, may therefore find themselves having to coordinate operations and share intelligence with the Revolutionary Guard Units.
Despite all of these important issues with serious security implications, Council members speculate that the underlying motive for the briefing is actually to provide an opportunity for Russia to criticise the long-term regional repercussions of the US-led invasion in Iraq in 2003. However, several Council members view the emergence of ISIS as a more immediate consequence of the civil war in Syria and the sectarian and authoritarian Shi’a-led Maliki government in Iraq which has alienated its own Sunni population.
The public briefing will focus on Israel-Palestine issues. Council members will want to hear Feltman’s assessment of whether the tension between Hamas and Israel will rupture the unity government in Palestine established between Fatah and Hamas on 2 June. The tension has reached crisis level following the disappearance of three Israeli teenage settlers who went missing near Hebron in the West Bank. The incident occurred in Area C of the West Bank where Israel has sole security responsibility, yet Israel has attributed responsibility to Hamas. The Palestinian Authority has condemned the incident without ascribing blame while criticising the Israeli military response. A massive security sweep across the West Bank has resulted in two killed, dozens injured and more than 330 Palestinians detained—mostly Hamas members, including “re-arrests” of previously released prisoners as well as several legislators. The Palestinian Authority has characterised the response as collective punishment and as an Israeli escalation tactic in retaliation for the unity government.
Another issue Council members will likely want more information on is the hunger-striking Palestinians under Israeli administrative detention who are protesting being held without charge or trial. There are approximately 5,200 Palestinian detainees in administrative detention, by which Israel holds Palestinians suspected of being a security threat without charge or trial for six-month periods that may be renewed ad infinitum. Media reports indicate that the number of these prisoners refusing food has reached 300 with 70 being hospitalised. On 10 June, the Israeli parliament approved a measure to enable force-feeding prisoners that could become law as early as next Monday (23 June). Both the Secretary-General and the High Commissioner of Human Rights have reiterated that administrative detainees should be charged or released without delay and that force-feeding prisoners would contravene international standards.
Finally, Council members will also be keen for an update on how many of the letters Palestine presented on 2 April to accede to 15 international conventions have come into force and whether there has been any concrete movement by the Palestinian Authority to additionally accede to the Rome Statue of the International Criminal Court.
The artificially imposed moratorium on Council action on Israel-Palestine ended when the 29 April deadline for peace talks passed without any US-brokered peace deal. Nevertheless, there remains little impetus to forge a more direct role for the Council vis-à-vis the peace process. All Council members share the view that no Council activity would be possible without the support of the US. Given the more overwhelming concerns in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, Council members have very little appetite to challenge the status quo on this particular issue—especially as the parties themselves seem ill inclined to resume negotiations at this juncture.