At several different checkpoints Kurdish soldiers told me that Bekhal, a picturesque series of waterfalls in northern Iraq near the Iranian border, was just "15 minutes" down the road. Through fog, heavy rain, and bursts of sunshine, I drove for an hour; at least I knew my destination was right around the bend.
Perhaps the soldiers were trying to teach me some of their history: a Kurdish state has been just around the bend for the past century. Whether at Versailles in 1919, in the League of Nations, at the United Nations, or in the aftermath of two wars in Iraq, the Kurds have been told to wait a bit longer, sometimes by their own leaders. There is plenty of history behind the Kurdish adage: "Our only friends are the mountains."
One painful episode from Kurdish history merits particular attention today. As the world weighs its options in Libya, it might remember the costs of not acting on behalf of the Iraqi Kurds in March 1991.
No, northern Libya is not northern Iraq. Libya's rebels have far different grievances from Iraq's Kurds. America remains indispensable to any multilateral intervention but its power is far more constrained today than it was in 1991. European nations may have more of a stake, and a more of a responsibility, in Libya. These differences warn against drawing too many parallels but not from reckoning with the costs of failing to respond to a humanitarian crisis.
In January 1991, shortly after the military effort to remove Saddam Hussein from Kuwait began, the US-led coalition cheered on Iraqi Kurds as they rose up against their government. They had their own reasons, but Kurds were eager to answer the then-US president George Bush's call for those in Iraq "to take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside".
Kurdish forces attacked the regional security headquarters in Sulaymaniyah where officers loyal to Saddam fought fiercely but were ultimately overwhelmed. Other cities would fall more quickly. Less than a month after the uprising began, a contingent of soldiers in Mosul were the last of Saddam's forces in the region.
But during that same period of weeks, the US-led coalition had signed a ceasefire with the Iraqi government, ending the First Gulf War. While Iraq was prohibited from using fixed-wing aircraft, the agreement said nothing about helicopters.
"While we hoped that popular revolt or a coup would topple Saddam, neither the US nor the countries of the region wished to see the breakup of the Iraqi state. We were concerned about the long-term balance of power at the head of the Gulf," explained the US National Security Advisor at the time, Brent Scowcroft.
The largest populations of Kurds in Iraq, living in the plains below the mountains, became easy targets for Iraqi gunships. Helicopters strafed civilian convoys with gunfire as the Kurds fled to higher ground. It was only after the Kurdish rebellion became a rout, after thousands of Kurds had been killed and more than one million became refugees, that a no-fly zone was implemented by British, American and French forces. The effort, Operation Provide Comfort, was expanded later that year to protect populations in southern Iraq.
Few could have predicted then that the commitment would last more than a decade. Critics of a no-fly zone in Libya are right to warn about that kind of obligation and its costs today. The blunt response of the US secretary of defence Robert Gates that "a no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defences" also bears keeping in mind. Most of Iraq's air defences had been destroyed during more than 40 days of coalition bombing during the First Gulf War. That infrastructure in Libya would have to be attacked first; a no-fly zone would not be a neutral action.
But examples from Iraq don't serve the argument that no-fly zones are too vulnerable to "mission creep" and that they lead to a much greater likelihood of all out war. It was Bill Clinton, not George W Bush, who served as the US president for the majority of time that the no-fly zones were operational. And it was spurious connections between Iraq and the September 11 attacks the motivated the US-led invasion in 2003, not anything that occurred as the West policed Iraq's skies.
The costs of the no-fly zone over Iraqi Kurdistan were significant but they have also paid dividends. Since the effort allowed Iraqi Kurdistan some autonomy from Saddam Hussein well before he was toppled, the region's development is farther along today than most of Iraq. Iraqi Kurdistan's role as a buffer, so long a burden, has become a blessing as it now serves as a middle-man between Turkish, Syrian and Iranian business with Baghdad. While Kurdish cities in Iraq have not been insulated from the region's recent protests, demonstrations there have been more about how wealth and power are spread, not their absence.
Iraqi Kurdistan has been transformed in the past two decades along with so much of the region. The growing importance and international role of the Gulf has been one of the most significant changes, which the response of GCC nations to the crisis in Libya this week reflected. "The ministerial council demands that the Security Council take the steps necessary to protect civilians, including a no-fly zone in Libya," the Gulf's foreign ministers said in a joint statement this week.
American power and its will to involve itself in another conflict in the Arab world have waned. In the Gulf, however, there is a new source of strength and a considerable ability to support humanitarian efforts, even those that involve a military response. What happened to the Iraqi Kurds, who courageously rose up against a dictator, only to be brutally beaten back, need not happen to the Libyan opposition today.
*Published in the UAE-based THE NATIONAL on March 11, 2011