We have painted ourselves into a corner in northern Iraq. More accurately, the US government has supplied the brushes the Kurds have used to paint themselves into that corner.
For decades, the international community recognized the need for refugees to cross borders to seek safety. Thus, in 1988, when Saddam Hussein unleashed chemical weapons on Kurds, tens of thousands fled into Turkey. In 1991, in the immediate aftermath of the Gulf war, Saddam crushed a Kurdish revolt and would-be refugees again fled to the Turkish border. But this time Turkish soldiers pushed them back. More than a quarter million were stranded on windswept mountains along the frontier.
Well-established principles of refugee protection dictated that Turkey keep its border open and provide at least temporary asylum, as had been demanded of Thailand in the 1970s when confronted with Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees or of Pakistan in the 1980s when Afghan refugees poured across its borders. But the Gulf war partners, led by the US, decided to take the pressure off Turkey and, in their view, to keep it on Iraq. In fact, they put pressure on civilians in Iraq who otherwise would have become refugees and put themselves and their families out of harm's way.
UN Security Council Resolution 688 transformed the victims into the threat and let Turkey off the hook. Refugees, said the Security Council, would "threaten international peace and security in the region." The US and allies carved out a security zone in northern Iraq and told the Kurds they would be protected there.
The rhetoric of Operation Provide Comfort was humanitarian, and it did provide Kurds of northern Iraq relative safety from Iraq's central government for several years. But it was not politically neutral humanitarianism. It was intended to protect Turkey from Iraqi Kurdish refugees by preventing them from seeking asylum there. That precedent haunts us. Turkey is no more willing than it was in 1991 to open its borders to Iraqi Kurdish refugees. But there is no longer an alternative for their safety inside Iraq.