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Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Operation Provide Comfort: A forgotten mission with possible lessons for Syria

In retrospect, OPC was one of the great American military operations of the 20th century, though it rarely garners the degree of attention and recognition that it rightly deserves.


By General James L. Jones, USMC (Ret.)

Best Defense guest columnist

By General James L. Jones, USMC (Ret.)
Best Defense guest columnist

Nearly a quarter century after the U.S.-European alliance undertook Operation Provide Comfort (OPC) in 1991, in response to Saddam Hussein’s plan to take militarily action against the Kurds in northern Iraq, this operation remains in the history books as an under-appreciated success story of geo-strategic importance. As the tragedy in Syria continues to unfold, the collective lessons learned on both sides of the Atlantic during the course of OPC should receive serious attention. Such lessons may guide us at a time when many of the region’s lingering cultural and sectarian conflicts continue to rage out of control.

In Dec. 2016, I was privileged to return to Erbil at the invitation of President Masoud Barzani, along with a delegation of OPC’s original commanders. This trip commemorated the quarter century anniversary of the operation that effectively gave birth to the region now known globally as Kurdistan. Our return was a poignant reminder of how the United States and several key allies harnessed a unique combination of hard and soft power to great effect for the Kurdish and Iraqi people. Our delegation was inspired to witness firsthand the enduring effects OPC has had on the ground, and the warm welcome extended to us by President Barzani and the Kurdish Government in Erbil reaffirmed the strength of the U.S.-Kurdish bilateral relationship that continues today. Simply put, the Kurdish people have not forgotten.

Saddam’s belligerent actions in the late 1980s and early 1990s stoked fear among the Kurdish people. He launched a chemical attack on the Kurdish town of Halabjah in 1988. In 1991, the threat of Iraq’s advancing army and conventional weapons resulted in a human stampede by millions of Kurds. Some fled across their northern border into the frigid mountains of southern Turkey, while many others fled across the eastern border into Iran. Very few of the refugees had time to take any of their possessions with them, let alone protective gear for the winter months. Almost a million Kurds who fled to the north ended up isolated in the mountainous wilderness of Southern Turkey, where they faced exposure to extreme natural elements and starvation due to lack of food and water. An emergency coalition was formed under the leadership of the United States to address the human catastrophe that was being played out before a concerned international community.

Coalition aircraft from carriers and land bases in Turkey positioned themselves to provide a “no-fly zone” in the sky above Northern Iraq, while also working to secure a similar “no-go zone” for the Iraqi army on the ground below. A stunningly effective coalition of humanitarian volunteers and military assets from England, France, Turkey, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, and the United States very quickly delivered humanitarian aid to the refugees, all the while preparing conditions in Iraq for a safe return to their homes. Saddam’s army was ordered by the OPC coalition to withdraw and maintain a distance of thirty kilometers from advancing coalition forces. They did so in the face of overwhelming military coalition forces, who never had to fire a shot in achieving the goal of complete control over the reclaimed territory. America and her allies provided protection and sustenance to the Kurdish people, who to this day attribute the area now called Kurdistan to this operation. The Kurds of today remain among our most trusted and reliable allies. Operation Provide Comfort was, at its core, a humanitarian effort that assisted a vulnerable population, but it was also a strategic achievement that introduced a favorable narrative about American will, capability, and influence to region that was in dire need of assistance. It was, at the time, the largest humanitarian effort in history.

In retrospect, OPC was one of the great American military operations of the 20th century, though it rarely garners the degree of attention and recognition that it rightly deserves. Perhaps this is because of the softer approach and execution of OPC relative to other military operations, or perhaps it’s because the mission was a more “peaceful” struggle that followed the massive military operation to liberate Kuwait. Whatever the case, OPC formed the basis for what has proven, over the last quarter century, to be an enduring alliance with the Kurdish people.

Today, when we consider the net gains that OPC produced for Americans, Europeans, and Kurds alike, this operation remains an example of what could yet be achieved in Syria. Certain tactics employed in Iraq, such as the establishment of “no-fly” and “safe” zones” for refugees, could be applied to particular advantage in Syria. President Trump has stated that such options remain “on the table” for discussion. A “no-fly zone” would serve to protect the country’s airspace, deter President Bashar al-Assad’s Air Force, and would convey coalition willingness to exercise additional international military power in the ongoing conflict. The benefits of an accompanying safe zone on the ground would reverberate both domestically and internationally, and could provide the Syrian people with protection while also stemming the ongoing exodus of refugees and displaced people spilling across Europe. Indeed, while in Kurdistan, I found it nearly impossible to see the transformation and stability of the Kurdish people without thinking of the exigent circumstances facing Syrians. History, unfortunately, has a way of repeating itself.

As our new administration renegotiates American relationships around the globe and forges alternative paths forward with both allies and adversaries, I would encourage the national security policy community to outline for the Commander-in-Chief the ways in which targeted, but comprehensive, military interventions can help achieve our nation’s long-term interests and also prevent future conflicts from erupting. Operation Provide Comfort stands as a remarkable example of how investments in people can have generational effects, paving the way for lasting, continued cooperation. From the perspective of 2017, it is evident that military action taken in 1991 achieved results that still benefit the U.S. today. Kurdish fighting forces are effectively fighting much of the ground war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, including the ongoing effort to liberate Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul.

While Russia’s presence in the region has complicated matters significantly, it would be worth exploring the possibilities of a Syrian version of Operation Provide Comfort. The argument for such an effort is compelling: a U.S.-led coalition demands that Assad forfeit control over a certain amount of territory in the north. A “no-fly/safe zone” assigned to care for displaced persons and civilian casualties could be imposed. Our friends in Turkey would welcome such a mission as it would substantially alleviate the burgeoning burden they are bearing in their border region.

Over three years ago, the United States failed to live up to its “red line warning” to Syria regarding Assad’s use of chemical weapons on his own people. Twenty-five years ago, the United States and a formidable coalition of Allies and NGOs responded to a similar provocation by Saddam Hussein against his own people in northern Iraq.

Just as the Kurds of today have not forgotten the benefits of that intervention, the Syrians of today will long remember that we failed them in their hour of similar need. But maybe, just maybe, it’s still not too late.

General James Jones was the 32nd commandant of the Marine Corps. He also served as chief of U.S. European Command (2003-06) and as National Security Advisor (2009-10). He currently He currently runs Jones Group International.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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