Bring the UN into the fight against ISIS

By Thomas S. Axworthy

Published on Wed Oct 08 2014 in The Toronto Star

The most serious decision of any state is whether to go to war. Rarely has the case for the use of force been more compelling than the need to stop, and then roll back the recent advances of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). ISIS is not only a geo-strategic threat, but a group that openly advocates genocide.

The case is so compelling for an international coalition to combat ISIS that Canada should press the United States to obtain a Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force against the Islamic State extremists. Canada should certainly be part of the anti-ISIS coalition, and that coalition, in turn, should have the sanction of international law.

ISIS, like Al-Qaeda, has a goal of establishing a caliphate across Mesopotamia, and stretching to North Africa, implementing an extreme form of Islam. As Ahmed Rashid, the distinguished expert on the Taliban, has written: “ISIS’s real war is with fellow Muslims, and in particular Shias, against whom it has called for a genocidal campaign.”

Extremist Sunnis in Iraq were defeated in 2006-7 but not eliminated and when the disastrous regime of former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki created a sectarian Shia regime, Sunni distrust and fears were re-kindled. ISIS filled this Sunni vacuum and then the Syrian war gave ISIS new life — and a force of experienced fighters. But Syria also led to the breakaway of ISIS from its former partner, Al-Qaeda, whose leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, deplored ISIS’s attacks on civilians (imagine a group so extreme that it receives a rebuttal from Al-Qaeda!).

The barbarism of ISIS is a policy tool. It now competes with Al-Qaeda to be the leader of Sunni extremism. Its beheadings and calls for genocide against Christians, Yazidis and Shias are tactics to ensure it is seen as the most fanatical force in the Islamic world. Al-Qaeda has been outflanked.

Like Lenin or Mao, ISIS uses violence as a tactic to embellish its revolutionary credentials. But the horror it inflicts is not theoretical: Human Rights Watch reported in July that ISIS uses rape, torture and mass executions to exterminate religious minorities. Human Right Watch’s Middle East director, Sarah Whitson, concludes: “ISIS seems intent on wiping out all traces of minority groups from areas it now controls in Iraq. No matter how hard its leaders and fighters try to justify these heinous acts as religious devotion, they amount to nothing less than a reign of terror.”

So ISIS seeks to overturn state boundaries violently in order to create a religious medieval caliphate and it practices genocide against ethnic and religious minorities. To prevent such outrages was exactly why the United Nations was created. The UN Security Council is the body authorized to decide on behalf of the world community whether actions are a threat to world peace or whether human rights violations are so horrific as to trigger the “responsibility to protect.” Since it is so obviously guilty on both counts, I cannot conceive of the UN Security Council turning down a motion to authorize military action against ISIS.

But strangely, such a motion has not yet been brought to the Security Council. Instead, another ad-hoc coalition of the “willing” has been assembled outside of the UN framework. Why not use the Security Council to give such a coalition the legitimacy of international law?

Military action against ISIS is only part of the solution. Air strikes can hurt ISIS when it is on the road, but not when it occupies cities. The Kurdish militia needs weapons. The new Iraqi government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has to welcome Sunni participation. The Gulf States have to stop supporting ISIS financially. Moderate Muslims must be encouraged. Religious minorities must be protected. It will be a long campaign.

Canada is a civilized country and we must stand and be counted in the fight against ISIS’s barbarity. But civilization depends above all on the rule of law. In the fight against ISIS, the first thing Canada should do is to take the issue to the UN so that the coalition’s fight against lawlessness is itself authorized by international law.

Thomas S. Axworthy is a Senior Distinguished Fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs and a Senior Fellow at Massey College.