30th anniversary of UNSCR 688, paving way for today’s Kurdistan Region

Heads of state and their representatives at a meeting of the United Nations Security Council in New York. (Photo: Reuters/Lucas Jackson)
Heads of state and their representatives at a meeting of the United Nations Security Council in New York. (Photo: Reuters/Lucas Jackson)

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) - Monday will mark thirty years since the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 688—which was approved on April 5, 1991, in the wake of the ceasefire to the 1991 Gulf War.

UNSCR 688 is the one—and only—Security Council resolution that specifically mentions the Kurds, and it laid the basis for the autonomous Kurdistan Region, as we know it today.

The resolution called on Baghdad to cease its repression of the Iraqi people, including the Kurds, and it led to the creation of a safe haven for the oceanic tide of refugees that arose after US President George H. W. Bush abruptly ended that war, with the Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, still in power.

The Europeans—particularly France—took the lead in addressing the humanitarian crisis, while Washington remained reluctant, committed to the illusion that the Iraqi military would oust Saddam.

Yet out of this disaster, like a phoenix risen from the ashes, the Kurds—people and leadership—emerged to create the first self-governing Kurdish entity since the short-lived 1946 Mahabad Republic.

Gulf War’s Disastrous End

On Feb. 28, 1991, Bush called a unilateral ceasefire to the Gulf War—after just 100 hours of ground combat (most of the US-led offensive had been aerial bombing.)

When Bush declared that ceasefire, the entire Middle East was stunned. That included such US allies as Israel and Turkey. It also included the Saudis, who were then hosting a meeting of the Iraqi opposition, which Hoshyar Zebari, who represented the Kurdistan Democratic Party abroad (and became Iraqi Foreign Minister after 2003), was attending.

In mid-February, just two weeks earlier, Bush had called on “the Iraqi military and people” to “take matters into their own hands to force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside.”

But Bush really wanted—and expected—a coup. As a White House official affirmed then, “Our policy is to get rid of Saddam Hussein, not his regime.”

There was no coup, of course. Instead, the Shi’ites in the south and the Kurds in the north rose in revolt. The Republican Guards, which had largely survived the war intact, proceeded to quash those rebellions. They moved first against the south. Despite US warnings, they even used sarin gas—as US intelligence (Iraq Survey Group) would confirm after the second war twelve years later.

In late 1995, Bush spoke to the British journalist, David Frost and explained that he thought then Saddam “would be gone.” Moreover, he was surprised when Saddam brutally suppressed the postwar revolts. He had not known that Saddam still had the forces to do so.

“I think he took us by surprise,” Bush said, as he also acknowledged that he should have demanded Saddam’s personal surrender and not have left that to the US Commander Norman Schwarzkopf and his Iraqi counterpart.

In March 1991, as Saddam proceeded to crush the revolts, the Bush administration debated whether to use the huge US force in theater to support the rebellions or “withdraw so Iraqi military forces could consolidate control” and then move against Saddam, The Washington Post reported then.

Why was there such confidence that the Iraqi military would overthrow Saddam? This reporter’s impression is that in their efforts to secure a coup in Baghdad, they ended up dealing with Iraqi agents who fed them false information that served Saddam—i.e. if they supported the Iraqi people in their rebellion, it would alienate those preparing the coup.

But that is just an impression, and it would be much better for US officials to explain their decision-making, if only to minimize the chances some future US administration, finding itself in a similar position with another Saddam-like figure, will make the same mistake.

On March 26, 1991, the Bush administration decided in favor of letting Saddam suppress the rebellions. White House Press Secretary, Marvin Fitzwater, clarified an ambiguity, as he announced that the US would not shoot down Iraqi helicopters being used to attack the uprisings.

The Kurdish leadership understood what would likely follow. “I realized there would be problems,” a Peshmerga commander recalled. “The time was short to organize our forces.”

In Ankara, Turkish President Turgot Ozal, who had joined the US-led coalition and shown an unusual friendliness toward the Kurds, complained that Fitzwater’s announcement was “a big help for Saddam Hussein.”

The Kurdish Exodus

Two days later, Saddam’s Republican Guards began an offensive against the Kurds. They fled in terror, fearing Saddam would use chemical weapons.

In the summer of 1993, Masoud Barzani, President of the Kurdistan Region, recounted those events to this journalist, along with Kamran Karadaghi, a reporter for al-Hayat (after 2003, Chief of Staff to the President of Iraq, Jalal Talabani.)

“It was very different from 1975 or 1988,” Barzani told us. “Maybe, 100,000 people fled then, while three million remained. This time it was the opposite. Everyone who could leave, left. We were in danger of losing our country.”

Barzani coordinated with Talabani, then head of the other major Kurdish party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Barzani made his stand at Korre, with his 22 year old son, Masrour, at his side. Talabani did the same further south, behind the city of Azmar.

In the narrow mountain passes and armed with RPGs, the Peshmerga fought desperate battles, and they succeeded in disabling—and stopping—the advancing Iraqi tanks, allowing the population to flee behind them in safety.

It was very difficult, however. “I have never in my life suffered so much,” Barzani said. “We were exhausted. Everything was collapsing around us. Deep down, I knew that Iraqi morale was low too, and if we could make this one stand, that would be it.”

The Kurds fled to the Turkish and Iranian borders, thinking Saddam would not use chemical weapons, where the entire world could see (this was, of course, before cell phones and the internet.)

Some two million people fled to the borders, roughly half to Turkey and half to Iran. Pressure built from US allies—France, Britain, and, above all, Turkey, where one million people were decamped in miserable conditions. Peter Galbraith, then a Senate staffer, was in Iraqi Kurdistan, and played a key role in informing US officials, particularly the embassy in Turkey, of the desperate situation.

Finally, Bush relented and dispatched Secretary of State James Baker to survey the situation—and reluctantly modified his position, paving the way for UNSCR 688.

The Passage of UNSCR 688

As a teenager, Danielle Mitterrand had joined the French resistance against the Nazis. Years later, she took up the Kurdish cause and helped found the Paris Kurdish Institute, of which Dr. Fuad Hussein, currently Iraq’s Foreign Minister, was deputy head from 1987 until 2003.

Francois Mitterrand, French president from 1981 to 1995, was much influenced by his wife’s work, and since his presidency, France has been a strong supporter of the Kurds.

France introduced Resolution 688, and it was approved by a vote of ten to three, with opposition only from Cuba, Zimbabwe, and Yemen, whose president, Ali Abdullah Salah, had supported Saddam. China and India abstained.

“Gravely concerned by the repression of the Iraqi civilian population in many parts of Iraq, including most recently in Kurdish-populated areas, which led to a massive flow of refugees towards and across international frontiers” that “threaten international peace and security” is how UNSCR 688 describes the Security Council’s view of the situation.

There are other mentions of the Kurds in the resolution, but all are similarly and carefully phrased to avoid suggesting the Kurds have political rights. That said, it is the only Security Council resolution that even mentions them!

The resolution condemned Iraq’s repression and demanded that it “immediately end” and Baghdad allow “immediate access” for humanitarian organizations. The resolution also called on all member states “to address urgently the critical needs of the refugees and displaced Iraqi population.”

That day, Bush ordered the start of a massive airlift of relief supplies to the refugees on the Turkish border. However, it soon became clear that an airlift alone would not address the crisis.

Britain proposed establishing “safe havens” for the Kurds, and on April 8, the European Economic Community (a predecessor organization to the European Union, which was established in 1993) endorsed the proposal.

On April 10, the US imposed a no-fly zone in northern Iraq, above the 32nd parallel, to protect the humanitarian effort, and on April 16, it announced that it would join Europe in implementing the safe havens plan.

Operation Provide Comfort began. It included the enforcement of the no-fly zone, as well as the construction of camps in the safe haven for returning refugees, along with the provision of relief supplies.

The original safe haven was limited to a narrow strip on the Iraqi side of the Turkish border. In order to encourage the refugees’ return, US forces began telling the Iraqi military to leave the area, which they did.

But, as it turned out, throughout the entire Kurdistan Region, the Iraqi military could not hold its positions. Lacking air support because of the no-fly zone, the Iraqi army was vulnerable to attack by the Peshmerga, backed by the population. The Iraqi army left, and in October, Saddam imposed a blockade on the region, separating the Kurds from the rest of Iraq.

Initial Fragility of the Kurdistan Region—and Long Term Success

At first, autonomous Kurdish rule in the Kurdistan Region appeared tenuous. The US had never intended to promote a self-governing Kurdish entity. Rather, it was fully committed to the territorial integrity of Iraq.

The planes that enforced the no-fly zone were based at Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base. The Turkish parliament had to re-approve the operation every six months. Given the long-standing Turkish-Kurdish tensions, there was no guarantee it would do so.

Although the no-fly zone would, in fact, continue until the second US-led war began, the humanitarian dimension of Operation Provide Comfort ended in the fall of 1991. Lt. Gen. Jay Garner (US Army, Retired) headed that effort. As he left the Kurdistan Region, walking over the Habur Bridge to Turkey, he addressed his army colleagues. “They “don’t have a chance,” Garner said regretfully.

Twenty-five years later, in 2016, Garner explained to Kurdistan 24 why he felt that way. “5,000 villages had been destroyed” in Saddam’s genocidal Anfal campaign, he said. “A good, large portion of Erbil had been destroyed,” along with other Kurdish cities, and “there was no economy.”

“On top of that, we didn’t give [the Kurds] any assistance after that,” as the US had intervened only to address the immediate humanitarian crisis.

“I don’t think you can find a case in history,” he said, “where a group of people has gone from that devastation to where they are now, in 20, 25 years.” It’s “an amazing story, an incredible story.”

And when Garner returned in 2003, he “did not recognize” the Kurdistan Region, from when he had last seen it in 1991. And “if you come back now [2016], you don’t recognize it from 2003. It’s so far advanced from then.”

“Kurdish Iraq is the Iraq we wanted to have,” Garner stated. “Kurdistan is what we wanted Iraq to be.”

Editing by John J. Catherine