Forgotten Obligations: The UN Security Council’s Role in Combatting Terrorism in Iraq

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

Based on territorial gains in Syria and Iraq by the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS), the recent declaration of an Islamic State (Khilafah) has laid to waste President Obama’s claim that the US (having withdrawn military forces from Iraq in 2011) left behind “a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq.” This was evidenced by a recent statement he gave to CBS news that ISIS “was destabilizing the country…that could spill over into some of our allies”. The emerging Obama Doctrine in respect of US foreign policy is distinguished by a fundamental dichotomy at its core. On the one hand, the doctrine is distinguished by America’s pre-eminent role in supporting democracy and inherent in this doctrine is the ‘responsibility to protect’ (civilians) as a fundamental part of international law. On the other, the US supporting foreign military intervention only if there is a clear and direct danger to US national interests. It would appear for now the latter doctrine is prevailing when it comes to Iraq, primarily to suit the current administration’s domestic concerns and geopolitical interests in the Far East conveniently ignoring the old established proverb ‘if you break it, you own it’.

Furthermore, there is a threat that such rapidly rising militancy spills over to the GCC and the Levant which could cause a seismic shift on local politics regional economies and will have a dramatic social impact. Terrorism is no longer a domestic issue in Iraq, but a global epidemic that must be eradicated.

A key problem in the regime change of the 2003-2004 period was the fundamental lack of constructive engagement and involvement of all political factions and players. As the players were carefully selected by the Coalition Provisional Authority at the time, they were restrictive to a very few, and exclusive of others. A quota system now became a key element of post-2003 Iraqi politics, and has brought about less reconciliation, and greater division. With the critical threat ISIS now poses, it has now become increasingly urgent to acknowledge a change to help unify Iraq and restore its national identity on the basis of long term reconciliation. Failure to do so, will leave little alternative but to focus public debate on a de-facto 3 state solution following a protracted period of sectarian conflict and social upheaval – an option unaccepted by the Iraqi public.

Notwithstanding the media frenzy on recent territorial gains in Iraq made by ISIS, there is surprisingly scant mention in the media of the obligations of the UN Security Council in combatting terrorism in Iraq and in particular their obligations under UN Resolution 1618 which specifically addresses the issue of combating terrorism in Iraq in order to protect Iraq’s territorial sovereignty.

Role of The UN Security Council in Combating Terrorism

The Security Council is empowered to take various measures including the military option in order to maintain or restore international peace and security, provided that it has first determined a threat to peace. Herein lies a few dilemmas such as there is no established definition of what constitutes a ‘terrorist act’ and accordingly there is no consensus in what constitutes ‘threat to peace’. The fact the Security Council have a wide discretion to take enforcement action under its charter which leaves the decision to intervene to be decided on a political level. Accordingly, the Security Council is not obliged to respond to all situations that are potentially a threat to peace including ISIS’s insurgency in Iraq and Syria. However, since the UNSC issued resolutions 1483 and 1511 recognizing Iraqi sovereignty, it should follow through by enacting Resolution 1618, which seeks to protect this sovereignty.

UN Security Council Resolution 1618 (2005)

UN Security Council Resolution 1618 (2005) unanimously adopted in 2005 calls on security council members to fulfill certain obligations related to terrorist activities in Iraq including the following:

1. Combat by all means, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, threats to international peace and security caused by terrorist acts.

2. Prevent the transit of terrorists to and from Iraq, arms for terrorists, and financing that would support terrorists; and

3. Strengthen regional cooperation of regional countries in preventing terrorism.

Historically, the Security Council has proven itself capable of strictly enforcing UN resolutions when it comes to Iraq particularly during the sanctions era but to date is surprisingly silent in enforcing or taking measures under Resolution 1618 particularly in light of the US Administration’s late recognition that ISIS now poses a threat to Iraq’s sovereignty. Any attempt to construe ‘threat to peace’ in support of a non-interventionist policy as exemplified by the Obama doctrine, is prima facie contrary to the role of the Security Council to establish and ensure global peace and security.


Notwithstanding Russia’s assistance in delivering military jet fighters to the Iraqi Government and the US sending military advisors to assist the Iraqi Government on various matters including counterinsurgency tactics which the US is obliged to do in any event under a Memorandum of Understanding signed between both countries in 2012, an emergency session of the Security Council should be convened to deal with various issues such as:

1. Calling upon Iraq’s leadership to constitute a representative Government in accordance with Iraq’s constitution within a strict timeframe.

2. Classifying the recent surge and activities of ISIS in Iraq as ‘terrorism’ and an immediate ‘threat to peace’ in Iraq, the wider region and the international community.

3. Conferring authority on Member states to take whatever action necessary to assist a lawfully constituted and representative Iraqi Government in securing Iraq’s sovereign territory including its borders, border towns, main arteries and vital infrastructure.


The Obama doctrine of foreign non-intervention does not apply to Iraq as the stakes for US allies in the long term may be very high. By way of indicative example the resurgence of the Taliban following the US war in Afghanistan clearly underestimated the effect of blowback.

Failure to stabilize Iraq in the short term by engaging with security council members under the auspices of UN Resolution 1618 and consulting regional security experts could lead to the ‘mother of all blowbacks’ and tarnish Obama’s legacy way before the next US presidential elections in 2016.

This article was originally published in The Huffington Post. You can find it here.