Obama & Airstrikes to Protect Iraqi Kurds: 1991 Deja Vu all Over Again

By Juan Cole

During the Gulf War in early 1991, then-president George H. W. Bush called on Iraqis to rise up against Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party.

In the Kurdish north and in the Shiite South, hundreds of thousands heeded his call. But after the short war was over in March, Bush appears to have completely lost interest in the Kurds and Shiites who rose up and now were in danger of being massacred by the Baath army. Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf told the Iraqi military it could not fly armed helicopter gunships (as a way of protecting Iraqi crowds that had demonstrated). The Iraqi officers said that they used the helicopter gunships as aerial ambulances, but that some were armed with rockets. Could they please fly the armed helicopters? Schwarzkopf said that he was too tired to argue, and said “OK.”

Of course, Saddam immediately had the helicopter gunships fire at crowds in the holy city of Najaf south of Baghdad.

The Kurds in the north, fearful that Saddam would roll takes against their villages, fled into the mountains. But there was no food in the mountains and if they stayed up there, they would starve to death.

George H. W. Bush may not have been very concerned about his bad faith in calling for people to rise up but then hanging them out to dry.

But the prospect of thousands of Kurds dying of hunger or thirst in the mountains on his watch upset him and it would have been a very bad political image. So he ordered a “no-fly zone” instituted over the Kurdish portions of northern Iraq. US planes flew hundreds of missions, making sure that Saddam’s tanks could not come after the Kurds.

Fast forward to today. Now it is the Yezidis, and small religious group, who have fled into the hills, from their area of Sinjar. They could, like the Kurds 23 years ago, starve and thirst to death up there.

Now it is the armored personnel carriers captured by the so-called “Islamic State” from the Iraqi army in Mosul that are rolling toward Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.

So President Obama, like George H. W. Bush before him, was facing a public relations nightmare. And he responded in the same way, with a no-go zone over Kurdistan policed by US fighter jet pilots.

The Neocons who wanted to go to war against Iraq in the early zeroes always said that one reason a war would be good was that the US was spending a lot of money on the no-fly zone over Kurdistan– as if a whole war wouldn’t be much more expensive (it was, by about $1 trillion).

Apparently not only has the Iraqi federal army almost completely collapsed, finding itself unable to take back Tikrit, but now the so-called Islamic State was making a move on Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital of Irbil.

Obama’s hope that the so-called “Islamic State” can be stopped by US air power is likely forlorn. The IS is a guerrilla force, not a conventional army.

But one thing is certain. A US-policed no fly zone or no go zone over Iraqi Kurdistan is a commitment that cannot easily be withdrawn and could last decades, embroiling the US in further conflict.


Related video:

President Obama Makes a Statement on Iraq

30 Responses

  1. Where is the money going to come from for financing the “no-go zone over Kurdistan policed by US fighter jet pilots”?

    The US government will borrow the funds, bonds from the private corporation, the Federal Reserve and pay the fixed interest of 6% which will keeps America in perpetual debt. Where does the Fed get the money, out of the thin air. Daaaaaaaa. Dumb isn’t it. The bankers are pretty slick. Isn’t this illegal? No, whatever the bankers do is for the best interest of ?????

    Please excuse any errors. Doesn’t matter since I sure this will not be posted.

    • Why in the world would you think your comment – which apparently you think is deeply incisive and sophisticated – NOT be “published” on such a website as Informed Comment — despite that your own is the opposite of that? Also, your choice of online avatar name is highly suggestive of trolling. We’re seeing a lot of this sort of unfocussed Chicken Little concern trolling lately, and that suggests a deep pool of scatter-brained ignoramuses you typify.

      Your post if messily over-packed with rightwing memes. I won’t go thru all of them, but one is this nutty notion that the Fed prints U.S. currency.

  2. ISIS is a monster built to hit Assad and Iran by the US and/or their Arab allies. It looks like it is not so easy to control. Or the goal is to destroy Iraq as a nation and a society.

  3. 4500 US soldiers have died and an estimated 100,000 soldiers wounded for this? Bill Kristol and his companions view the current Mad Max Iraq chaos and smile thinking…at least their is no Saddam to support Palestinians saboteurs. The neocons would agree with Madeline Albright who said about hundreds of thousands of Iraqi deaths due to US sanctions, the price was worth it.

  4. Although I wish the air strikes or any other military action could be taken jointly with some regional countries on the basis of a Security Council resolution, there is no doubt that the Yezidis, the Christians, the Kurds and the Shi’ites in Iraq need to be saved from the barbaric attacks of IS terrorists. We should not underestimate the threat posed by these groups to the entire region, because they have an extreme militant Sunni ideology that even scares the Al Qaeda and the Saudis who bankrolled them, and now they have also succeeded to occupy a large territory in Iraq and Syria. With a base like that, huge quantities of military equipment that they plundered from military bases in Iraq and Syria, billions of dollars that they stole from the banks in Mosul and from the sale of oil, they can pose a threat not only to Iraq and Syria, but in time to Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iran and even Saudi Arabia. They have to be stopped before they gain greater strength.

    If America launches a unilateral attack on them she will be marked as their main enemy, and if Iran alone takes them on it will only confirm that it is a war between the Shiites and the Sunnis that will again devastate the entire region. Saudi Arabia claims that IS poses a danger to the kingdom, and Egypt is also fighting against “the terrorists”. Parts of Turkey have already been destabilized as the result of the spillover from Syria. If at the moment, due to the unnecessary new Cold War with Russia, it is impossible to get a Security Council resolution, the United States must act together with Iraq, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iran to form a united front against IS and then push for some real reforms in those countries. The battle should not be between the United States and IS, or the Shiites against the Sunnis, but a joint Sunni-Shia campaign with the help of the West against terrorism. Whether these terrorists would have existed without the invasion of Iraq and the arming of the insurgents in Syria is now immaterial. The fact is that now the world is facing the scourge of the most virulent form of terrorism that has to be stopped before it is too late.

  5. While IS is not a conventional army, it is counts with former Baath regime advisers. Col. Pat Lang cites “a friend who is trying to save a few of the Yazidis trapped on the mountain at Sinjar” as saying: “His field man’s description of IS coalition tactics against the Pesh Merga are what I would expect. The Old Iraqi Army military experts who are the fighting brain of the IS coalition were well schooled in the military art. I remember conversations with men like these concerning tactical and operational level methods in the world wars. This has Guderian, Patton, Manstein et al written all over it. In addition to that theoretical base, the Old Iraqi Army had a lot of largely successful experience fighting the Kurds.”

  6. Always learn so much here. Just wish the U.S. would have been this concerned about 400,000 Palestinian refugees. ISIS are some especially vicious fundamentalist.

    • Ahh, but Israel, like Saudi Arabia, is considered something of an ally, which we’re short of in the region, particularly in that those two are, along with Iran, the three most powerful and influential states in the region. We, of course, are allied with the two of those most oblivious to the interests of their neighbors.

  7. Damn! This group led by Abu Bakr is a real kick-ass outfit! I thought that the Kurds were supposed to be well-organized and tough. How can this rogue band of bad-asses go into the territory of someone else and strike terror in their hearts and minds?
    How many IS fighters are there? Where did they learn to be so skilled? Where do they get their money and their supplies? Successfully pulling off invasions should not be easy for anybody, much less a roving band of warriors without an apparent homeland base.
    Lastly, why is it that only America can be the savior of the Kurds, et al?

    • From reading and listening to various reports,when ISIS overran military bases they secured heavy artillery, U.S. weapons included. I was very surprised when ISIS forced the Peshmerga to withdraw and advanced to threaten Irbil. ISIS heavy weapons outgunned the Peshmerga. That set off alarm bells in the Obama administration. That’s how I read it tonight.

      Obama has a real problem on his hands. Stopping ISIS is one thing, defeating them is another. How many ISIS fighters have European passports? What will happen as the U.S. becomes more involved?

      This could turn out to be very nasty.

      • I’m inclined to go with Professor Cole’s view, that it’s pretty much the one politically safest choice for this administration, given the dynamics here as well as there.

        I don’t share what appears to be your concern, escalation, because that’s not how Obama’s been rolling over the first 5.5 years of his administration. My concern is with the trap we find ourselves in of having to on the one hand offer Kurdistan this sort of assistance while conditioning a ‘secure’ promise to one very scared province of more of it on the commitment to stay within a construct that was DESIGNED AT THE OUTSET (by the Brits) to be weak.

        If we were serious about security for Kurdistan, the best approach would be to commit to supporting the idea of it as an independent Kurdish state. Kurdish people would then be far more likely to cast off their dependency as they’d be invested in the preservation of their homeland.

        One of the biggest problems I have with what we’re doing now is that I’ve little doubt that Obama himself and his key NSA and State Dept advisors are well aware of what would work best for preservation of Kurdish security, but are choosing to take the less controversial route to appease mostly Republican hawks and the silly center that never votes in midterms anyway. It seems typical of Obama to carefully and rationally weigh all the options and then go with the kneejerk one.

  8. All good points, with the partial exception of the statement that IS is a guerrilla force and not a conventional army.

    In fact, it seems to be a little of both, or in a transition phase to a conventional army. Guerrillas don’t travel in armored personnel carriers or use artillery beyond mortars. Guerrillas hide among the people.

    In Syria and in the Sunni provinces of Iraq, IS clearly took off as a guerrilla force, with the support of large numbers of disaffected Sunnis (disaffected is not quite the right word, but it will do)

    Insofar as Kurdistan is concerned, IS could function only as a conventional force. IS would have little or no popular support among the Kurds or amon almost all the minority groups in Kurdistan, so if IS tried to survive as guerrillas in Kurdistan they would suffer the fate of the CIA & Cuban exiles in the Bay of Pigs.

    That said, all the points about the long term commitment of a no fly zone hold, as does the comparison to 1991. Saddam Hussein was not at the head of a guerrilla force. Another parallel is the rapid spinning of tales making Saddam out to be worse than Hitler. Saddam was pretty bad and IS seems worse than Saddam. But today I just Rod Dreher telling stories about videos of decapitated children and Christian heads on pikes, with no links and no sources. Anyone remember the babies thrown out of incubators in Kuwait that never happened? 1991, 2001, and maybe in 2014 – demonization of the enemy is a dangerous thing.

    • I agree with your characterization of ISIS over Professor Cole’s over-simplistic description. However, what ISIS does that’s most like guerilla warfare is use terror tactics, so to that extent Cole is correct. It’s only when ISIS has succeeded in terrorizing an area like they’ve done with this minority sect on the perimeter of Kurdistan and succeeded in moving on from there to using the same tactics towards Irbil that we’re likely to see the more conventional armed forces capacity of ISIS.

  9. What I do not understand is why the United States feels the need to get involved in every other country and their conflicts. Yes, I believe we could help…. but should we not take care of our own first? We have millions homeless, jobless, no food, etc. but we continue to direct resources to care for illegal immigrants and now other countries.

  10. Question: I thought the Sunnis were somewhat more secular than the Shia, so I am confused that ISIS, whose stated goal is to re-establish an overreaching Islamic caliphate or theocracy, are Sunnis. What am I missing? Thanks.

    • I suggest you put your point to Professor Cole. I don’t really understand where you get the notion that ‘the Sunnis are more secular’. Sunni and Shia are like two large strands of DNA running thru the regions many, many, MANY sectarian variations on Islam.

      What are you missing? A lot. Again, ask Professor Cole.

  11. “Apparently not only has the Iraqi federal army almost completely collapsed….”
    I’ve always been curious about the huge armies we developed in Iraq and Afghanistan (and maybe Vietnam). Their purpose is to fight an die in civil wars against forces the US considers enemies.

    A soldier in the Iraqi Army is expected take the lives of other Iraqis, and risk his own life, for a central government birthed out of the US invasion and occupation. Seems it might be perfectly natural for there to be Army members who would rather fight on the ISIS side than against ISIS. ISIS seems a force of Iraqis unlikely to collapse or be intimidated.

    And poor Obama has only one button on his action console – BOMB

    • Obama, just a figurehead for the real rulers, has other buttons he could ask THEM to push, the ones that would stand down all the idiocy of Imperial destabilization and all the Great Gamery that the Rulers indulge in because that serves their personal short-term I profitable interests. Seems to me this latest “thing” is no kind of guerilla or any kind of “standard army,” it’s a Horde. There are probably millions of battle-trained gunmen out there, with no other kind of employment opportunities, or just in love with the viplence, and past that little restraint that keeps ordinary people from this kind of looting and killing. Seems to me this is a Horde. And Hordes are just the virulent form of a disease that our Rulers hither and yon encourage and use our wealth to pay for and then try to restrain.

      Where’s the historians reminding us of the other episodes like this? Europe at various times? Various epochs in China? And all the other Hordes with their charismatic leaders and sick and violent common themes and self-amplifying “beliefs”?

      Too bad ” Obama” is like one of those many late Roman emperors, having to fear garrotting or stabbing by the Praetorians. Too bad the rest of us, intoxicated and manipulated by “innovation”, can only amuse and delude ourselves as the governors of the machine fail, and the revolutions per fortnight reach the fly-away, self- destruct level…

  12. Philip D. Zelikow: “Iraq intervention was for the benefit of Israel.” Still is.

    • And preservation of the concept of Iraq that’s been in place since the days of Prince Faisel and T.E. Lawrence following WWII, for its supposed value as an easily manipulated ‘buffer’ state, is STILL the rationale for our policies there.

  13. No, it will not require an endless no-fly zone from the United States. The Kurds can develop their own defense, including a modest air force. We already trained some pilots.

    I’ve been arguing for a couple months that Kurdistan is poorly armed and in desperate straits financially. One esteemed analyst said that the Peshmerga would make mincemeat out of ISIS in any encounter. I’m sickened to see ISIS success, but heartened that the true state of affairs is now broadly understood.

    Kurdistan can be built up, they have a highly functional society.

  14. As President Obama is fond of Grand Bargains perhaps the time has come for one with Iran. The United States and European allies will be more accommodating of Iranian nuclear interests in return for Iranian assistance to contain the Islamic State. This could include resupply, other military support, and relief for civilian populations. Possibly there could be some Iranian military support on the ground to supplement US air power.
    I know, I know, the Iraqis would be unhappy. Too bad, the current situation reflects poor decisions there. And of course the Israelis are likely to whine but they are doing so anyhow. We need to decide who we find less objectionable, Iran or the Islamic State. In the long run I think Iran will be more likely to balance long-term strategic interests than will a narrow religious group.

    • Netanyahu isn’t the whining type. Bibi is a NUTJOB who plays hardball. Letting the Iranians send in troops or take military action in Iraq opens up a different and dangerous can of worms.


    • Um … isn’t he actually pretty much DOING that, right now? Over Republican and American “conservative” rants, of course.

      Also, you seem to suggest that the only impediments to such a bargain are all from this country. I think you’ll find that the current regime in Iran is acting at least as cautiously as the Obama administration in this, again out of national politics concerns.

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