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Symbolbild Warnung Barack Obama Präsident USA
Image: Reuters

Obama at the UN

Michael Knigge
September 22, 2014

US President Barack Obama will head a UN Security Council session to push nations to curb the flow of foreign fighters to 'IS.' The planned resolution applies to all states, but Obama's real target is a close US ally.


When Barack Obama travels to New York this week to chair a UN Security Council meeting the message is clear. The US president wants to rally the global community's attention to what he considers a vital issue of the day. He did so exactly five years ago to the day - the first American president to lead a UN Security Council session - and spoke about nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, a key topic in the early stages of Obama's presidency.

This time Obama will highlight the threat posed to UN member states by the flow of foreign fighters to the "Islamic State" (IS) and similar terror groups. And just like in 2009 he will use the event to push for a Security Council resolution - last time to reaffirm the UN's goal for a nuclear arms free world, this time to take action against foreign fighters. And just like last time, he hopes the US-backed resolution passes the Security Council with a unanimous 15-0 vote.

The president will probably get his wish.

"It's an easy diplomatic gain and good optics because obviously everybody in the Security Council has an interest in seeing something like this pass", Faysal Itani, a Middle East specialist at the Atlantic Council, told DW. "You can hardly disagree with it on principle."

Even often obstructionist Russia will support the resolution as long it does not implicate its ally, Syria's Assad regime.

No veto from Moscow

"The Russians have to be very worried because there are a lot of Chechen jihadists now fighting with IS and there are also jihadists from other parts of Russia who have also joined," Henri Barkey, professor of international relations at Lehigh University, told DW.

"So it is not in the interest of Russia to be obstructionist on this because in some ways this also helps the narrative of Russia that Assad is the only thing that stands between jihadists and civilization and therefore any resolution that criticizes jihadists, but not the Syrians would be welcomed by the Russians."

The resolution, according to Reuters which has obtained a draft version, forces countries to "prevent and suppress" the recruitment and travel of foreign fighters to join extremist organizations like IS by ensuring it is considered a serious criminal offense under domestic laws.

Irak islamischer Staat Kämpfer Januar 2014
IS has attracted foreign fighters from the region and beyondImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo

The mandate would ban citizens from travelling, collecting funds or helping others to travel abroad "for the purpose of the perpetration, planning, or preparation of, or participation in, terrorist acts, or the providing or receiving of terrorist training."

According to Reuters, the draft resolution is legally binding for the 193 member states under Chapter VII of the UN Charter - which allows the Security Council to determine the existance of any threat to or breach of peace and gives it authority to enforce decisions with economic sanctions or force. Importantly, however, the draft does not mandate military force to tackle the foreign fighter issue.

Targeting Turkey

While Obama is using the UN Security Council as a bully pulpit, the real addressee of his message is a close US ally currently not a member of the elite body - Turkey.

"I imagine that the main target here is Turkey because there is the perception that they have been lax and irresponsible in their management of foreign fighter flows," said Itani.

The country was in a difficult spot until recently because IS had been holding 49 Turks hostage since June. This has certainly constrained Ankara's ability and willingness to go after IS in neighboring Syria and Iraq. Turkey, according to press reports, won't allow the US to use NATO bases in the country for attacks on IS.

IS infrastructure

But, noted Barkey, that and stopping the flow of foreign fighters via Turkey is just the tip of iceberg. "Today in Turkey you have a very important IS infrastructure that has developed over the last year or so." It consists of safe houses and support networks for fundraising and the treatment of wounded fighters, said Barkey. "That infrastructure has to be dismantled."

While the experts expect Turkey to publicly sign on to the resolution, they are less convinced that Ankara will actually fully do so in practice.

They also question whether the resolution - beyond alerting the world to the problem of the movements of extremist fighters - will produce any tangible change.

Diesel Schmuggler an der türkisch-syrischen Grenze
The Turkish-Syrian border is considered to be porousImage: DW/S. Cousins

Marginal effect

"This is a very long fight, it will take many many years", said Barkey. "It is not one Security Council resolution that will resolve things and so I would say the help it will give will be marginal."

"It's not completely cynical, it's just indicative of the fact that these are the easy things to do", added Itani. "It's relatively easy to use financial counterterrorism means and it's relatively easy to try to stop people from migrating to Syria and coming back. That's been policy all along."

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