Can the UN Put the Financial Squeeze on ISIL?

The Security Council did something unusual today. It came together in a profound moment of unity and unanimously passed a resolution on Syria.

The normal divisions between the USA and Russia that have stymied action on Syria over the past four and a half years were temporarily cast aside in a resolution that beefed up sanctions and sought to tighten an economic noose on ISIL and the al-Qaeda affiliated al Nusra front.

It seems one thing that can bring together an otherwise paralyzed Security Council is the common threat posed by these terror groups.

The vote today is also instructive of how the United Nations can be leveraged in the fight against ISIL. Last year, the Security Council authorized a set of sanctions on ISIL and al Nusra, and created a monitoring team of UN civil servants to report on the effects of the sanctions and make recommendations for further measures. In November, the monitoring team sent a report to the Security Council that offered a fairly nuanced look at ISIL and al Nusra’s sources of financing. It estimated that ISIL takes in between $846,000 to $1,645,000 per day in oil revenues; that the sale of Syrian and Iraqi antiquities were a significant source of funding; and identified the ways that ransom payments and donations helped sustain these groups.

The report made a number of recommendations to the Security Council that would make it harder for these groups to maintain their current funding models. This includes a ban on the sale of Syrian antiquities and re-affirming that it’s illegal to pay ransoms to these groups.

The resolution also took up the monitoring groups recommendations on oil smuggling–mostly.

One area of divergence between the Security Council resolution and the recommendations issued by the UN monitoring team was on precisely how to stop oil smuggling. The monitoring team recommended that all oil tankers going in and out of ISIL controlled territories be seized. The Security Council resolution softens that a bit, and instead calls on states to cooperate in stopping the oil smuggling and merely “expresses concern” that vehicles entering ISIL controlled territories may be carrying goods that might benefit ISIL.

The divergence between the UN report and the Security Council action is indicative of one of the biggest challenges of a resolution like this: the capacity of the frontline states to actually implement it. In general, the Security Council is loathe to pass resolutions that member states cannot possibly act on. In this instance, the question of seizing oil tankers is particularly difficult. After all, who will do the seizing?  Syria is a failed state; Iraq is mostly a failed state; Jordan and Lebanon are weak states; and Turkey is, well, conflicted.

Still, this resolution may help to the extent that member states with the capacity step up their assistance to help frontline states stop and deter smuggling. The resolution, which is legally binding  under Chapter VII,  also puts considerable pressure on Turkey to crack down on smuggling networks.

The action today by the Security Council is a good demonstration of how the United Nations and the tools of international law can and should be summoned in the fight against ISIL. But as always, the effectiveness of the resolution will be manifest in the extent to which member states are able and willing to implement its strictures.