In the long years of confrontation between the US and Iraq, an almost symbiotic relationship has developed between US and Iraqi efforts to raise the political and military stakes. The latest clashes in the no-fly zones, culminating in the February 16 US-UK attack on Iraqi command and control sites north of the 33rd parallel, are no exception. Bill Clinton’s arrival in office in January 1993 triggered brief but intense Iraqi anti-aircraft fire in both no-fly zones, and the US responded with bombing raids. Now the Iraqis, having upgraded their air defense targeting system, apparently with Serbian help, have intensified anti-aircraft fire upon planes patrolling the no-fly zones as the new Bush administration was installed. George W. Bush reacted to the Iraqi regime’s “provocation” by authorizing last Friday’s missile attack, which allowed Saddam Hussein to pose as the champion of Iraqi and Arab interests. Hussein in turn obliged the US government’s public relations campaign by calling the raid an “Israeli plot.”

Sustaining the no-fly zones is a costly exercise. The US bill for the southern zone alone in the fiscal year that ended in September 2000 was $1.4 billion. What does the Pentagon claim to achieve with this massive expenditure? As with previous US-UK attacks in the no-fly zones, the immediate rationale for the February 16 raid was “self-defense” — a response to anti-aircraft fire, or to Iraqi radar “locking on” to US-UK planes. But the rhetoric surrounding the zones still reiterates the formulas used to justify them since 1991. These formulas hold that no-fly zones protect civilian populations — Kurds in the north and Shi’a in the south — and that they are part of an international policy of “containing Iraq” and protecting its neighbors from attack. But the actual history of these zones displays a considerable gap between publicly declared purposes and real intentions.

Raising the Stakes

The February 16 attack was an escalation, in that it targeted installations outside the no-fly zones, but the scale of action in the no-fly zones has increased dramatically since the beginning of 1999. Although there had been several major clashes over the no-fly zones since 1991, the pattern of attack and response was much less intense. According to UK Ministry of Defense figures quoted by The Times in June 2000, since mid-December 1998, RAF bombers alone dropped 78 tons of bombs on Iraqi military targets, compared with 2.5 tons between April 1991 and December 1998. The average monthly release of bombs rose from 0.025 tons to five tons. The casualty rate on the ground has also gone up sharply. Although the figures are contested, the Iraqi government claims that between December 1998 and the beginning of 2001, 323 civilians have been killed and 960 injured by US and UK attacks in the no-fly zones.

It was the collapse of UNSCOM’s role at the end of 1998 that led the Clinton administration to adopt “aggressive enforcement” of the no-fly zones as part of its so-called “enhanced containment” of Iraq. Soon after Operation Desert Fox in December 1998, President Clinton quietly sanctioned changes in the rules of engagement for US aircraft operating in the no-fly zones. This allowed US pilots to strike at any part of the Iraqi air defense system, not just those that directly target their aircraft. On February 23, 1999, a US Defense Department spokesman spelled out the targets, which include “missile sites, anti-aircraft sites, command and control sites, relay stations and some intelligence gathering sites.” In March 1999, the British government for the first time conceded that the changes affected their pilots as well.

Limits of Protection in the North

The original northern no-fly zone was first declared by President George Bush in early April 1991 to protect coalition aircraft during the airdrops of aid to Kurdish refugees on the Turkish border and then to protect coalition ground troops advancing into northern Iraq as part of Operation Provide Comfort. This action, Britain, France and the US asserted, was taken under the terms of UN Security Council Resolution 688, which called on Iraq to cease repression of its civilian population. However no explicit endorsement in the form of a Security Council resolution was obtained for either Operation Provide Comfort, or the no-fly zone.

When coalition ground troops were withdrawn, the no-fly zone was left in place, ostensibly to “protect” the Kurds and the international humanitarian workers based in the north. After the Iraqi government decided, in October 1991, to withdraw its ground troops—and all funding—from the three northern governorates, the region came under Kurdish control but had no formalized status. It was part of Iraq but not under government control. The no-fly zone and the presence of international humanitarian staff may have deterred the Iraqi regime from trying to retake the northern region, but as a protection mechanism it has had considerable limitations.

The northern no-fly zone does not coincide exactly with the “de facto” line to which Iraqi troops withdrew. The no-fly zone therefore includes Mosul, still under government control, but excludes Sulaimaniyya, the largest city of the Kurdish-controlled region, along with the southern part of that governorate. Also outside the zone is the city of Kirkuk, a center of the Iraqi oil industry that remains under government control. But it is here that Kurds are at most direct risk from the Iraqi regime, which has pursued a policy of Arabization of the city and the surrounding region. Kurds have been forced to resettle elsewhere in Iraq or move to the Kurdish-controlled areas, stripped of their ration cards and all their possessions. According to Kurdish sources quoted by Amnesty International, over 94,000 Kurdish and Turkmen inhabitants have been expelled from Kirkuk since 1991.

Finally, the air exclusion zone applies only to Iraqi aircraft, not to Turkish or Iranian air forces. Although the zone has been effective in deterring Iraqi air attacks, the Turks, pursuing their war with the PKK, continue to use both air and ground troops on a regular basis inside Iraqi Kurdistan, often causing civilian deaths, injuries and destruction of property. The US has never challenged Turkey’s incursions—the latest when 10,000 Turkish troops crossed the border in December 2000—though the EU and UN have periodically made ineffectual protests.

Southern No-Protection Zone

In August 1992, members of the Gulf war coalition announced the establishment of a second no-fly zone covering the region to the south of the 32nd parallel, on a line just to the north of Najaf and Amara. The immediate trigger for action was the UN Human Rights Special Rapporteur’s report on the increasing Iraqi military pressure on the population of the southern marshes. However, the Rapporteur had envisaged some form of monitoring on the ground, rather than a no-fly zone. The announcement of the zone avoided the necessity for ground action of any kind, while it allowed the US to appear tough after one of the many disputes over weapons inspections that had occurred in July 1992.

Once again Resolution 688 was invoked to justify the intervention. But the southern zone has never actually contributed anything to the safety of the civilian population. In fact, the role assigned to the mission was to “observe” violations, not to stop them. As early as 1994, the US State Department’s annual report on the human rights situation in Iraq acknowledged that, although the no-fly zone prevented aerial attacks on the southern marshes, it did not prevent artillery attacks or other army actions. By the end of 1996, the same source noted that civilians were not protected from ground attack in either zone.

Ill-Judged Interventions

Gradually, the US began to justify the southern no-fly zone more as a means of reassuring its allies in the Gulf that Iraqi planes would be kept far away from their airspace. Then, under the Clinton administration’s policy of “containment” of Iraq, both no-fly zones became part of the vague objective to “keep up the pressure on Saddam.” In the north, the CIA began to support efforts by Iraqi opposition groups to stage an attack and possibly a coup attempt from Iraqi Kurdistan.

The result of this ill-judged effort was an Iraqi military incursion into Erbil in September 1996, the first major movement of Iraqi troops into the Kurdish-controlled zone since 1991. Opposition members fled or were killed and all UN humanitarian aid personnel left the north. Instead of challenging the short-lived Iraqi incursion, or attacking the advancing Iraqi troops, the US chose to attack targets in the south and unilaterally extend the southern no-fly zone to the 33rd parallel. As the Bush administration moves to support the Iraqi opposition in its attempt to operate once again inside the northern no-fly zone, and across the Iranian border into the south, it would be well-advised not to forget the past history of “adventures” in the no-fly zones.

Unilateral Uncertainty

This latest phase in the no-fly zones’ history underlines their role as instruments of individual states’ policy, rather than concerted action by the international community. Since France withdrew from the northern zone at the end of 1996 and suspended its participation in the southern zone at the end of 1998, only US and UK aircraft patrol the zones. France, along with Russia and China, is now openly critical of the bombing campaign. Even Turkey—whose Incirlik air base launches US-UK sorties in the north —condemned the February 16 attack. Arab states were mildly critical.

The new Bush administration’s early response was certainly meant to send a tough signal to the Iraqi regime. But the message seems to be aimed at other Middle Eastern leaders as well. In preparation for Secretary of State Colin Powell’s trip to the region beginning February 23, the administration wants to highlight the threat Iraq poses to the region. On February 11, Powell told CBS’s Face the Nation: “What [Saddam Hussein] can’t do is invade his neighbors anymore, but he can threaten his neighbors with weapons of mass destruction.” Of course, this threat—in the absence of UN weapons inspections on the ground—cannot be substantiated at present.

The use of air power in recent conflicts has often signaled ambivalence and uncertain policies. The present low-level warfare being conducted by the US and UK in Iraq seems a good example of this absence of strategic thinking. Meanwhile, the February 16 bombing will only reinforce Iraqi civilians’ well-rooted view that despite their rhetoric, the US and UK have little or no interest in their welfare.

How to cite this article:

Sarah J Graham-Brown "No-Fly Zones," Middle East Report Online, February 20, 2001.

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This