The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Nearly 30 years ago the U.S. acted to protect the Kurds — and must act again now

The United States put the Kurds at risk, and it must come to their rescue.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, shakes hands with Vice President Pence in Ankara, Turkey, on Thursday. (AP)

As gunships swarmed Kurdish towns and villages, the world watched aghast as the United States abdicated its responsibilities and enabled a humanitarian catastrophe. The German chancellor called the president and urged him to act and show “a new kind of leadership.”

But this did not happen last week, when the Turkish military swept into Syria in an assault against U.S.-backed Kurdish militias. It was nearly 30 years ago. In April 1991, the Kurds faced another threat — Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi military — and German leader Helmut Kohl wanted President George H.W. Bush to step up.

Betrayal of the Kurds is a recurring tragedy of recent history. Regrettably, President Trump has begun to repeat this mistake. He has recently spoken of the Kurds as though he could not care less about their future and questioned their past contributions to U.S. security. If we are to correct course, both morally and strategically, we must draw upon the lessons that Bush learned in 1991.

Like today, America’s actions sparked the 1991 crisis. Coalition forces had just ejected Hussein from Kuwait in a decisive air campaign and ground invasion. Sensing the Iraqi dictator’s weakness, the Kurds and Shiites were also encouraged by rhetorical support from U.S. leaders. Just two days after the end of the Gulf War, Bush called on the Iraqi people to rise up and “put Saddam aside.” And so they ignited simultaneous rebellions in Iraq’s north and south.

But they misjudged Washington. Unwilling to get troops bogged down in a civil war, or to fracture its international coalition, the Bush administration stood still as Hussein struck back viciously. The White House went so far as to publicly state that it would not intervene militarily, effectively giving Hussein a green light.

Watching the chaos unfold in Iraq, the world demanded action. Turkish President Turgut Ozal initiated a relief effort for the refugees making their way toward his border. Yet he could not manage this by himself, so he begged Bush to get off the sidelines. In a direct reference to the Iraqi government’s poison gassing and extermination of Kurds just four years earlier, Ozal underlined the stakes of the situation by noting, “There are children and women — it is worse than the 1988 massacre.”

Within days, Bush acknowledged that he was not doing enough. He sent his secretary of state — and best friend — James Baker to the border between Kurdish-populated Iraq and Turkey. After spending a few harrowing moments on a rugged mountainside teeming with refugees, Baker immediately called the president. “You have no idea of the human nightmare here. … People are dying every day,” he stressed, imploring Bush “to do something and do it now …. if we don’t, literally thousands of people are going to die.”

Bush worried about direct military intervention, and warned of getting the United States stuck in an Iraqi quagmire. But he ordered the U.S. Air Force to drop food, blankets and clothing to the refugees. Simultaneously, he worked with allies within the United Nations Security Council to pass a resolution condemning Hussein and labeling the flow of refugees across borders a threat to international peace and security.

Using that resolution as a basis for action, the United States created safe havens and no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq. Twenty-thousand troops from the United States and 12 coalition countries deployed to Iraq to implement “Operation Provide Comfort,” which was the first military humanitarian effort of the post-Cold War era.

After bungling the situation initially, Bush finally acted by using American military power and diplomatic influence to bring humanitarian relief and protect the Kurds. And while these events show how much the world had changed in the past 30 years, there are several lessons from his response to the crisis in northern Iraq that are relevant now.

To start, the United States must leverage Turkey into fully disengaging from Syria. It was easier to convince Turkey to work with the United States in 1991, when our leaders shared a good relationship and the United States possessed the resources necessary to solve the immediate concern, which was stemming the flow of refugees. Eager to act, Ozal prodded Bush to “give the order” to permit Turkey to secure and prepare safe zones for Iraqi Kurds.

Bush recognized the dangers of Turkey acting on its own and managed to convince his counterpart that this mission was the “proper responsibility for the U.N.” Today, the United States must find the right levers to alter the cost calculus for a very different, more hostile Turkey — whether it is through biting sanctions or reevaluating the country’s participation in NATO, everything must be on the table.

The cease-fire, recently announced by Vice President Pence after talks in Ankara, is a start. But the United States must go further, marshaling a multilateral coalition to dissuade additional violence. In 1991, the United States worked through the U.N. Security Council to justify Operation Provide Comfort. The opposite is occurring now, with the Trump administration siding with Russia in vetoing a European-led condemnation of Turkey’s unilateral assault.

It was humanitarian concern that compelled Bush to act. He was willing to use the U.S. military to help alleviate suffering and protect core security interests, despite popular worries about getting stuck in another Vietnam War. When Hussein attacked the Kurds, Bush understood the imperative to deliver much needed supplies and deter Iraq from continuing its attack.

When Trump ordered U.S. forces to abandon their positions in Northern Syria by contrast, he removed a vital military buffer between Turkey and the Kurds, allowing the former to displace over 200,000 people. With the United States gone, Russia has begun patrolling the contact lines between Syrian and Turkish forces — to unknown ends.

It is unlikely that Trump will authorize the military to deliver aid, and in the process, deter Turkey from continuing its assault. Therefore, Congress must take the political lead on this issue. A bipartisan resolution, along the lines of what’s being discussed by everyone from Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to Trump ally Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), that imposes sanctions and prohibits military assistance — including training exercises, which are still planned — will raise the costs of Turkish misbehavior and signal America’s commitment to the Kurds.

And Congress may need to coordinate with America’s allies or at least strongly demonstrate the United States’ will to lead, given Trump’s abdication and obstruction. Just because the president is resistant to learning from the lessons of the past does not mean the United States can afford such a failure.

Several months after working with Turkey to solve the crisis in northern Iraq, Bush called his counterpart in Ankara to review their progress on the ground. Despite their success, Bush remained aware of what might happen if they failed the Kurds again, warning that “our public opinion will not tolerate another massacre of the Kurds.”

Regrettably, we are failing to live up to that promise. This time, public opinion is not the only reason we should act: From the survival of those fleeing violence in northern Syria, to the potential reemergence of the Islamic State, to the empowerment of regional bullies such as Iran and Russia, there is much more to lose if we fail to heed our past mistakes.