ISIS could prompt what millions of refugees didn’t

“We have to get [the Kurds] better land under U.N. control and to put those people in the Iraqi territory and take care of them”, said President of Turkey Turgut Özal in April 7, 1991. Özal was advocating the creation of a no-fly zone to protect the Kurds against the genocidal actions of Iraq's Republican Guard. The main concern of the Turkish government was to avoid a wave of Kurdish refugees into Turkish territory that could strengthen the ranks of the insurgent Kurdistan Workers' Party, and boost the Kurdish separatist drive in Turkey. Iran expressed similar fears at the time.

Özal was backed a day later by Britain's Prime Minister John Major, who proposed the creation of an U.N.-protected area for the Kurds in northern Iraq, and by France's Foreign Minister Roland Dumas. When Britain and the U.S. announced the decision to protect the Kurds with Operation Provide Comfort, they referred to U.N. Security Council resolution 688 of April that year. It demanded Saddam Hussein’s government to end the repression “as a contribution to removing the threat to international peace and security.” Tellingly, only Cuba, Yemen and Zimbabwe had voted against it.

The current ISIS offensive is bringing back the memories of the crisis in northern Iraq following the 1990-1991 Gulf War. Again an unfolding humanitarian tragedy caused by a threat springing from Iraq (and Syria) has joined in concern the U.S., Britain, Turkey, the Arab Gulf states and Iran. Once more, Turkey is leading the calls for the establishment a no-fly zone, this time in northern Syria, to protect the Kurds, other minorities, and the Syrian opposition and to put a stop to the refugee flow into Turkey.

The same anxieties about the Kurdish insurgency run through the minds of Turkish officials. The Turkish government has spoken against the U.S. move to provide weapons to the militias of the Kurdish Democratic Unity Party fighting ISIS in Kobane (Ayn al-Arab). There are reports that Turkey has only allowed trusted groups, the Free Syrian Army and the Peshmerga forces from the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, to come to the aid of Syrian Kurds and in limited numbers.

With the U.S. already carrying out aerial attacks and Britain's recent announcement that will be conducting surveillance missions with spy planes and armed drones in northern Syria, there are increasing expectations that these operations will lead to the creation of a no-fly zone. This was one of the pre-conditions of President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to join the anti-ISIS coalition, beyond the ongoing Turkish contribution to arm the moderate Syrian opposition.

Yet the gap in terms of level of commitment required for the current low intensity aerial strikes in Iraq and northern Syria and the military actions of the scale of Operation Provide Comfort in Iraq in 1991 is still huge. If the so-called anti-ISIS coalition eventually does move forward with a no-fly zone it will require a more assertive and well-defined plan, probably including the deployment of ground troops.

There are significant divergences within the anti-ISIS coalition around means and goals. Turkey and the Gulf states have pushed for the removal of Assad to be included as one of the aims of the coalition. France seems to agree with this position, while the U.S. and Britain have shown greater reluctance to give that step. Given the repeated demands by Obama administration officials that Assad should leave and the U.S. renewed military backing to the Syrian opposition fighting both ISIS and Assad, this reluctance comes across as contradictory.

Engaging the other side

The coalition would need to be willing in principle to engage militarily Syrian government troops or its allied militias, considering that Assad could retaliate against the coalition forces, or attack the Syrian opposition within the perimeter of the no-fly and safe zones. Turkey's leadership could be reassured by NATO that, if attacked by Assad’s forces or ISIS for providing the base of operations, the alliance would invoke its Article 5 (mutual defense clause).

The current ISIS offensive is bringing back the memories of the crisis in northern Iraq following the 1990-1991 Gulf War

Manuel Almeida

There also needs to be a political plan for Syria post-Assad. Here things could get even more complicated since it would be sensible to involve Russia and Iran and it would be very difficult to resurrect the defunct Geneva II peace conference. Another tricky issue is the question of whether or not to extend the no-fly and safe zones to Iraqi territory.

Then there is no U.N. Security Council resolution that provides an explicit legal backing. Russia, a permanent member of the Security Council, will probably vote against any such text. The Russians are aware that the establishment of a no-fly zone in northern Syria could amount to the beginning of the end for Bashar al-Assad. It would breach what they still see as the sovereign space of the Syrian government and provide a safe haven for the Syrian opposition within Syrian territory. The Russians and the Iranians hope that the ISIS threat will help Assad recover some legitimacy, not the other way around.

Yet although important, the absence of a Security Council resolution explicitly authorizing a no-fly zone should not be seen as a decisive obstacle. In February this year the Security Council has already passed resolution 2139 on Syria that defined “terrorism, in all its forms and manifestations, as one of the most serious threats to international peace and security”. Syria has disintegrated and the Assad government has no legitimacy. Valerie Amos, the U.N.'s Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, said last week that the U.N. would provide humanitarian assistance for safe zones in Syria even in the absence of a resolution.

Among all these matters, here is what I find sadly ironic: Three years on, Assad’s brutality, more than 100.000 deaths and millions of refugees fleeing to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan were not enough for the impending establishment of a no-fly zone. ISIS and the threat it represents to the West could prompt it within just a few months.

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Manuel Almeida is a writer, researcher and consultant focusing on the Middle East and emerging markets. He holds a PhD in International Relations from the London of Economics and Political Science, and is the former editor of the English edition of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. He can be reached on @_ManuelAlmeida on Twitter.
 

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