What's In Blue

Posted Mon 5 Feb 2024

Meeting on US Airstrikes in Iraq and Syria under the “Threats to International Peace and Security” Agenda Item

This afternoon (5 February), the Security Council will hold a briefing on recent US airstrikes in Iraq and Syria under the “threats to international peace and security” agenda item. The meeting was requested by Russia. Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs Rosemary DiCarlo is expected to brief.

Since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war on 7 October 2023, Iraqi and Syrian militia groups backed by Iran have launched dozens of attacks on US military assets in the region. On 28 January, a drone strike against a US military outpost in Jordan killed three US personnel, marking the country’s first combat fatalities connected to the current regional crisis. US officials attributed that attack to the Islamic Resistance in Iraq—a coalition of Iraqi militias aligned with Iran—and US President Joe Biden pledged to “hold all those responsible to account at a time and in a manner of our choosing”.

On 2 February, the US launched retaliatory airstrikes against 85 targets in western Iraq and eastern Syria. In a statement, the US Central Command said that the strikes were conducted by numerous aircraft, including long-range B-1 bombers flown from the US, which dropped more than 125 precision munitions on several targets, including command and control operations centres; intelligence centres; rocket, missile, and uncrewed aerial vehicle (UAV) storage facilities; and logistics and munitions supply chain facilities used by Iraqi and Syrian militia groups and “their [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)] sponsors who facilitated attacks against US and Coalition forces”. The Iraqi government said that 16 people had been killed and 25 wounded, including civilians. In Syria, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights—a UK-based monitoring group with a presence in the country—said that at least 23 people affiliated with the militias had been killed.

Both the Iraqi and Syrian governments condemned the strikes as a violation of their countries’ sovereignty. The Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned the US chargé d’affaires in Baghdad to deliver a letter of protest and rejected the claim made by US officials that Washington had given Iraq advance warning of the strikes. The operation is likely to further raise Iraq-US tensions, which were already high following previous US retaliatory strikes in Iraq, including a 4 January drone strike in Baghdad that killed a senior commander of an Iran-linked militia that was formally part of Iraq’s official security apparatus. That strike prompted the Iraqi government to call for the withdrawal of the US troops stationed in the country as part of the international coalition combatting the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh).

Iran similarly condemned the 2 February strikes as a violation of Iraqi and Syrian sovereignty, as well as of international law and the UN Charter. In a 3 February statement, Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Nasser Kanani described the operation as a “strategic mistake” by the US that “will have no result other than intensifying tension and instability in the region”. In January, Iran launched a series of ballistic missile strikes in Pakistan and Syria, targeting groups allegedly responsible for recent terrorist attacks in Iran, as well as in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), hitting a facility that Iran claimed was an Israeli intelligence centre.

Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova also denounced the US strikes, which she said were “specifically intended to further escalate the conflict” in the Middle East; were not justified by the “unknown UAV attack” on the US base in Jordan; and required “urgent consideration” by the Security Council. Her statement also said that the British Royal Air Force participated in the strikes, a claim which has not been confirmed by the UK. A British government spokesperson reportedly said in a statement that the UK would not comment on US operations, but that the UK supports the US’ “right to respond to attacks”.

The strikes may constitute the first phase of a larger US operation. In his statement announcing the strikes, Biden said that they marked the “beginning” of the US response, which will “continue at times and places of our choosing”. On 4 February, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said that the US would take “further action”. US officials have stressed that they do not wish to stoke further tensions in the region but must respond forcefully in order to restore deterrence against attacks on US military personnel.

At today’s meeting, most Council members are expected to urge all sides to demonstrate restraint in order to avoid a further escalation of the regional crisis. The US is likely to reaffirm its right to self-defence while reiterating that it does not seek a broader war in the Middle East. Some members aligned with Iran—such as China and Russia—are likely to echo Iraqi and Syrian condemnations of the US strikes as violations of the countries’ sovereignty and a threat to international peace and stability. Council members might also reiterate such messages at the Council’s regular briefing on the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), which is scheduled to take place tomorrow (6 February). (For more information on that briefing, see the brief on Iraq in our February 2024 Monthly Forecast.)

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