Ministerial Debate and Draft Presidential Statement on Iraq and the International Response to ISIS
Tomorrow afternoon (19 September), US Secretary of State John Kerry will preside over a ministerial debate on Iraq. The debate is an initiative of the US, Council president for September, to demonstrate support for the new Iraqi government as well as the international effort to counter the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). The Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Iraq, Nickolay Mladenov, as well as the new Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari will brief. In addition to Council members, member states whose interests are affected by the situation in Iraq have been invited to participate under rule 37 of the Council’s provisional rules of procedure. Negotiations on a draft presidential statement took place at deputy permanent representative level this afternoon for possible adoption at tomorrow’s meeting.
Tomorrow’s debate is a culmination of US coalition-building that has resulted in some 40 countries, including 10 Arab countries, agreeing to back the US-led action against ISIS in military, humanitarian and support capacities. At press time, some 19 non-Council member states were expected to participate, largely representing the “coalition countries“ who will likely clarify their contribution to this effort. Of Iraq’s neighbouring states, Iran is expected to participate, but Syria is not.
A draft presidential statement was already envisaged when the US sent out the initial invitation for the ministerial debate on 12 September. By 17 September the US had yet to circulate a draft and most Council members were under the impression that the US was not going to pursue an outcome, though the reasons why remained unclear. However, the US circulated a draft today (18 September) welcoming the new Iraqi government and condemning attacks by terrorist organisations, including ISIS. The draft presidential statement also urges international support for Iraq’s fight against ISIS, notes that some of the terrorist group’s violations may constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity and stresses accountability.
While there is a degree of acceptance that a substantive outcome is requisite for such a high-level event, some Council members expressed concern that they were given very little time to negotiate the text, which is a pattern Council members are familiar with in Iraq-related Council outcomes. However, it appears that today’s negotiations were short and no major issues were raised.
Council members will be interested in an update from Jaafari and Mladenov on the inter-connected security and political situations in Iraq. Former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose leadership was characterised by power consolidation and stoking of sectarian tension, resigned on 14 August after losing support from his Shi’a base and international backers, the US and Iran. Haider al-Abadi’s premiership was endorsed with a mandate to form an inclusive government to unify Iraq’s Shi’a, Sunni and Kurdish citizens. Abadi’s cabinet was formed on 8 September, but with two crucial security posts, the defense and interior ministries, unfilled, largely due to the opposition of parliamentarians aligned with Shi’a militias. While Council members are expected to voice support for the new government tomorrow and are hopeful that it can persuade Sunnis to fight alongside the government against ISIS, there are several indications that Abadi’s replacement of Maliki may not be sufficient to rein in the sectarian violence. Government bombardment of Sunni civilian areas continues as well as unchecked activity by Shi’a militias, which the Shi’a community regards as protection, but the Sunni community views as death squads. Given the newness of the Abadi government, Council members are unlikely to be overly critical at this juncture, but may be looking for an update on the security situation when Mladenov briefs the Council at the next regular UNAMI meeting in November.
While tomorrow’s meeting is Iraq-focused, by virtue of the fact that ISIS operates in both Iraq and Syria, many Council members expect the subtext to be heavily influenced by the situation in Syria. US President Barack Obama’s announcement on 10 September that his strategy to degrade and destroy ISIS includes the possibility of expanding the air campaign to Syria is likely to be on many Council members’ minds. While US airstrikes in Iraq are being carried out at the request of the Iraqi government, giving the US and its coalition a legal basis for action, there has been no such request by Syria, nor is the US looking to partner with the Syrian regime as it has with the Iraqi government. Coalition countries supporting the military action in Iraq do not currently have the legal basis to extend such support to airstrikes against ISIS in Syria, no matter how much they revile the Bashar al-Assad regime. The Council’s practice of dealing with Iraq and Syria as discrete issues has not allowed for a broader discussion outside the lens of counter-terrorism on the crosspollination of events in Iraq and Syria.
The increased Council attention to a counter-terrorism approach to ISIS over the course of several months has been demonstrated with the adoption of a 28 July presidential statement prohibiting illicit oil trade as a source of revenue for terrorists, the 15 August adoption of resolution 2170 on ISIS and al-Nusra Front and the upcoming 24 September Council summit meeting and anticipated adoption of another resolution on the issue of foreign terrorist fighters. Nevertheless, no Council member believes this recent consensus will translate into any Council authorisation of military action targeting ISIS in Syria due to the assumed Russian veto.
Another prong of Obama’s ISIS strategy is to provide military assistance to the Syrian opposition and Saudi Arabia has recently agreed to host a training base for this purpose. Tomorrow, Council members will be listening carefully to the interventions by Saudi Arabia and Iran, two regional powers that may have a convergence of interest in confronting ISIS, but whose struggle for regional influence remains one of the defining factors in the Syrian civil war and the fragile security situation in Iraq. It is unclear how the Council’s counter-terrorism approach and the international response to ISIS have in any way addressed this fundamental underlying dynamic.