United States (US) Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James R. Clapper pointed out that part of the solution regarding ISIS lies in the application of military force. According to Clapper, US and coalition forces just need to “push them back,” “shrink their space,” “go after their command and control, and their capacity, and their weapons, and their fueling,” “cut off their financing,” and “eliminate the flow of foreign fighters.”
This past Sunday, US President Barack Obama made it clear that US intelligence misread the capabilities of ISIS but that coalition forces have moved forward in conducting airstrikes against ISIS targets from land and sea. Despite these efforts, ISIS militants continue to gain territory and instill fear in Baghdad residents.
Iraqi troops are now trying to protect the outskirts of the Iraqi capital.
ISIS advances in Syria generated a flood of refugees pouring across Turkey’s border in a situation that might prove more than the Turkish government is able to manage.
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) estimates that ISIS fields between 20,000 and 31,500 militants. Since June, ISIS has seized four cities and forced the migration of about 500,000 civilians. ISIS militants subsequently looted Iraqi military bases and financial institutions, which contribute part of the monetary means necessary to fund operations and establish an ISIS terrorist state.
Jordanian journalist Raed Omari wrote for the al-Arabiya Network that, “the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria [ISIS] has probably undergone the quickest transformation to statehood in modern history.”
The Obama administration has arranged a coalition of 40 countries, including regional Arab countries, in its fight against IS. However, the situation in Iraq is entirely different than it was in 2003 when the US under then-President George W. Bush led the “Coalition of the Willing.”
One thing does resemble both Iraq conflicts: the lack of a definitive UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR). UNSCR 1441 was approved unanimously in November 2002, offering Saddam Hussein a final chance to comply with its disarmament obligations. UNSCRs are rarely adopted unanimously; in fact, it has only happened six times in its history. The sixth, and most recent, time was UNSCR 2178.
UNSCR 2178 is an anti-terrorism resolution that aims to stop terrorists from transcending borders. This comes as revelations of ISIS’ ranks are swelling due to supporters coming from across the Middle East, Europe, and North America. Perplexingly, It does not give the US the green light to intervene in either Iraq or Syria.
Approval given by the Iraqi government has, in a sense, given the US carte blanche to conduct operations. It includes a proposal to train moderate Syrian fighters to help quell ISIS on the ground and to seal the Iraq-Syria border – a proposal that could be interpreted as interference in Syria’s unfinished civil war. US Army General Dempsey estimates that at least 15,000 trained fighters are needed to dislodge ISIS in Syria. These trained fighters will not only be used against ISIS forces, but also the Assad regime. Training fighters may constitute an act of regime change.
It is apparent that airstrikes alone will not defeat ISIS.
Currently, the Iraqi Army and Kurdish Peshmerga forces are not making significant territorial gains against ISIS. But US presence has marked the necessary shift in combat capabilities through much-needed sophisticated weaponry and the capacity to launch sorties frequently. While a coalition has taken form, the leisurely pace at which countries have come together has garnered a great deal of reproach.
Targets are not always easy to find but the US has already flown over 1,500 sorties in Iraq alone. Notwithstanding airstrikes near Fallujah, ISIS ranks could be bolstered with the right propaganda campaign in the city itself and surrounding areas. One only needs to remember the brutal US Marine siege of Fallujah in 2004. The city is situated in IS-supported territory.
The United Kingdom (UK) has recently joined the air war. In Canada, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet is still debating whether or not to send CF-18 fighters and surveillance planes. Canadian politicians’ concern for civilians appears to be obfuscated by unreasonable concern for the welfare of jihadists in Iraq and Syria.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is once again the elephant in the room. As a permanent member of the UNSC, Russia’s voice cannot be ignored, but whether Putin can weigh in with constructive words is another story.
It is not surprising that Putin, who is known for “talk[ing] like a democrat, and walk[ing] like an autocrat, has warned against bypassing the UNSC as a violation of international law.
Since its formation in 1946, the UNSC has been targeted by many politicians for its miniscuality, exclusive nature, “relations with the General Assembly [GA], its working methods, and its undemocratic nature” according to the Center for Peace and Security Studies’ Sahar Okhovat at the University of Sydney.
The infamous “power of veto” has been used 15 times by the US out of a total of 24 used over the past 20 years. The purpose was to protect Israel. The so-called “pocket veto” has been used often but has received less attention.
Russia (including the Soviet Union), however, has been the most common user, exercising its veto power on 124 occasions – exceeding any two other members of the SC combined. March 15, 2014 marked the last time Russia used its veto power to outright condemn what was called an “illegal” referendum on the status of Ukraine’s Crimea.
Russia restricted efforts by other SC members to threaten Chapter VII sanctions against Syria. This took place on July 19, 2012. Chapter VII empowers the SC to undertake (non-)military action with the aim of “restor[ing] international peace and security.”
Now Russia is turning its logic of “support[ing] the supremacy of international law with the United Nations” on it head. Pervading paradoxical opinion has placed Putin in a politically foolish position. His attempt to get as much mileage out of his democratic rhetoric as possible is more than conspicuous.
Putin, who vowed to defend democracy this past May, has since bullied Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko over preparations for the European Union- (EU) Ukraine deal, and told José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission’s (EC) current president, “[i]f I want to, I can take Kiev in two weeks.”
Once again, the UNSC has relocated the international community to the position of mere bystander. An estimated 150,000 people have been killed during the course of the conflict and pervading violence in Syria alone. Battles on the outskirts of Baghdad could either upend the need for a UNSCR or actually accelerate the decision making process of the SC. In either case, one might call into question what good a UNSCR will do at all.
Although many have reflected positively on the SC’s agreement on plans to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons and humanitarian aid delivery, others still have freely expressed malice for the poor performance of the SC in the face of egregious threats to international security and stability. As University of Exeter’s Scott Sheeran chillingly noted, “[t]he UN Security Council veto is literally killing people,” and there appears to be no signs of change.
States will not abate in seeking the power necessary to ensure their security even if it is at the expense of others. States necessarily are required to discern when power and security seeking actually provides for more than a single or merely a few states.
Conflicts in Ukraine, Syria, and elsewhere may actually by symptomatic of deeper problems in the contemporary international system but there is an exigency here that cannot be ignored. Ongoing debate within the UNSC on the use of force has so far done little to abate the situation in Iraq and Syria. US-led airstrikes have at least begun to put pressure on ISIS jihadists but more is needed.
ISIS (and the situation in Ukraine) has outlined the fact that the UNSC is in need of reform. Suggestions include BRICS countries such as India and Brazil as permanent members may not alleviate what seems to be a case of bad parenting. The UNSC might just need new rules and actual teeth.
*This op-ed piece was co-authored with Stewart Webb.
Stewart Webb is the editor of DefenceReport. He holds an MScEcon in Security Studies from Aberystwyth University (UK) and a BA in Political Science from Acadia University (Canada). He is the co-editor of Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in Modern War (forthcoming, 2015), Taylor & Francis.