WASHINGTON, DC (Kurdistan 24) – Masoud Barzani, President of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and, until 2017, the long-time President of the Kurdistan Region, joined on Wednesday in marking the 30th anniversary of Operation Provide Comfort (OPC).
Speaking of the US-led humanitarian operation that followed the February 28 ceasefire to the 1991 Gulf War, Barzani hailed OPC as the start of the Kurdistan Region’s current political system and the relative prosperity and stability it now enjoys—even as he warned that “significant dangers” still exist, and, therefore, so does the need for the Western countries that now help protect the Kurdistan Region to continue that effort.
Barzani was the keynote speaker in a webinar hosted by the Kurdistan Regional Government Representation in Washington, entitled, “The Turning Point: Operation Provide Comfort: Commemorating the 30th anniversary of the US-led humanitarian mission.”
A long-time Washington, DC observer of Kurdish affairs described it as one of the most significant events he has seen dealing with the Kurds, including for the positive views expressed by senior US officials, both those presently in office as well as those from prior administrations.
Basically, Wednesday’s webinar would seem to represent a slowly-evolving attitude in Washington toward Iraq and toward the Kurds: irrespective of the kind of government that prevails in Baghdad, whether dictatorship or democracy, the results have proven deeply disappointing. Governance is poor; violence is chronic; and the country is not very friendly to the US.
By contrast, governance in the Kurdistan Region is quite competent, and it, along with the Kurdish people, are very friendly to the American government and people.
Indeed, it was striking how frequently US officials, both current and former, used the word “strategic” to describe America’s relationship with the Kurdistan Region. So we will be reporting each session of the webinar in depth, and this report, focused on President Barzani’s remarks, is the first in a series.
Describing OPC as “an especially important event in recent history,” Barzani described the “great tragedy” that the people of Kurdistan faced then: “a mass exodus,” as “millions of our people fled to the borders of Iran and Turkey,” fearing that the regime of Saddam Hussein would use chemical weapons against them, as it suppressed the post-war uprising.
During the 1991 Gulf War, President George H. W. Bush had called on “the Iraqi military and Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands, to force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside.”
But the army never acted, and the people acted only after Bush declared a ceasefire. On February 27, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the CENTCOM commander who headed the Coalition war effort, gave a celebratory press conference, in which he essentially announced the defeat of Saddam’s regime.
“The gates are closed,” Schwarzkopf repeatedly affirmed. The Iraqi army had been decimated. Fighting with the Republican Guards continued, but it was south of a line formed by the forces of the US-led Coalition to block any significant movement northwards.
Even the vaunted Republican Guards were trapped, Schwarzkopf announced. Later that day, Bush called for a ceasefire to take effect the next day.
There is, however, a “fog of war”—an uncertainty inherent in military operations—as the German general and military strategist, Carl Von Clausewitz, famously postulated.
Somewhere, there was a major miscalculation, or, perhaps, a miscommunication between Schwarzkopf and Washington.
When Barzani spoke on Wednesday, he implicitly made that clear. “After the defeat of the Iraqi army in Kuwait, the Iraqi regime exploited some gaps in the Safwan agreement,” he said.
The Safwan agreement, a phrase that is likely unfamiliar to most readers, is the informal ceasefire that was reached between Schwarzkopf and his Iraqi counterpart on March 3 in Safwan, Iraq.
“The then-Iraqi regime used the remnants of the army to retaliate against and suppress the uprising of the people in the south,” Barzani explained. And after crushing the Shia uprising there, it “brought three divisions of the Republican Guard to attack Kurdistan.”
“Fearing another Anfal genocidal campaign and another chemical attack, the people of Kurdistan fled en masse toward the borders of Iran and Turkey,” he continued.
“The Peshmerga were neither such a large force, nor did they have adequate weapons, but they put up a heroic defense and were able to halt the Iraqi army’s advances in several locations,” Barzani stated.
In fact, Barzani himself led the “heroic defense” in one key sector, with his eldest son, Masrour, then 22 years old, at his side. The fighting was very hard and difficult, as the elder Barzani recounted in 1993, just two years later, under very different circumstances—as the newly-elected President of the Kurdistan Regional Government.
“I was very depressed,” and “I vowed that I would not leave Kurdistan. I will die here,” Barzani said, reflecting on those dark days as he fought Saddam’s Republican Guards.
Read More: The Kurdish Exodus: 25th Anniversary
“This determination was the reason for our success,” Masrour Barzani says now. “While everyone had lost hope,” he “decided to resist and not leave the country, knowing that we had very few people left with us.” It was this “hope and belief” that allowed us to emerge triumphant.
That triumph soon began to emerge. The UN Security Council passed Resolution 688 on April 5. The no-fly zone; delivery of humanitarian relief; and the establishment of a safe haven followed.
That “provided a golden opportunity for the people of Kurdistan,” Barzani explained on Wednesday. “The people of Kurdistan were able to manage their own affairs, to establish institutions, hold elections, and establish a parliament and a regional government,” while “Kurdistan became a haven for all who were persecuted and fighting for freedom in Iraq.”
Indeed, that was the situation US forces found, when they returned in 2002 to complete the job that had been left unfinished in the conflict 11 years before.
Notably, 2002 is not a typo! George W. Bush never really explained why he took the US back into war in Iraq, and the first US forces arrived a full year before the formal resumption of hostilities. An account of that experience can be found in Sam Faddis’ book, “The CIA War in Kurdistan: The Untold Story of the Northern Front in the Iraq War.” Iraqi Kurdistan became a beachhead for those, like Faddis, who were first deployed on the northern front.
Even as Barzani marked OPC’s 30th anniversary with profound thanks for those who had made it possible, he had serious words of warning.
“There are still significant dangers that threaten the Kurdistan Region,” he said. “I ask that this support, this backing, continues and that the protection of the people of Kurdistan be your priority.”
And he concluded, “Once again, I express my gratitude to you.”
Editing by Joanne Stocker-Kelly