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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Where Clinton Slipped

When Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait six years ago, President George Bush endeavored to forge an international coalition even as Washington developed a strategic plan to counter Saddam Hussein's aggression. Last week President Bill Clinton, having observed Saddam's forces marching into northern Iraq -- entering the U.S.-guaranteed "safe haven'' for Iraqi Kurds -- responded with unilateral missile strikes intended to disable Saddam's air defense system.

A key distinction between the Gulf War and the present hostilities hinges on the fact that five years ago Turkey was a close U.S. ally. Indeed, one of the first calls Bush placed was to the late Turgut Ozal, Turkey's president. Ozal immediately granted Bush the right to fly U.S. sorties from Turkish bases, which became an important factor in the victory of the U.S.-led coalition.

In the aftermath of the Gulf War, Saddam's troops marched north, brutally killing Kurds then engaged in an anti-Baghdad uprising. Many who survived Saddam's murderous campaign fled to Turkey. After discussions between Ozal and Bush's secretary of state, James Baker, Operation Provide Comfort was launched to ensure the safety of the Kurdish population in northern Iraq. In order to realize its goal, Washington established a "no-fly zone'' above the 36th parallel. Kurds who had been streaming into Turkey returned to their homes in Iraq. Since that time, American, British and French aircraft have flown surveillance missions from a Turkish base in an effort to police the area.

Now, however, the vaunted Gulf War coalition appears to have evaporated. France and Russia have been lobbying to lift the UN sanctions on Iraq. Meanwhile, the relationship between Ankara and Washington has deteriorated to an amazingly low level: Clinton didn't even place a phone call to Turkish Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan last week or request permission to use Turkish bases for U.S. air missions.

Just after the Gulf War, Ozal invited the two key Kurdish leaders -- Massoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party, and Jalal Talabani, who heads the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan -- to Ankara. "He had a vision,'' says one of the late president's key aides, adding that Ozal kept the Kurds "under Turkish tutelage.''

Since Ozal's death, however, successive Turkish governments have sought to disengage from the Kurds in northern Iraq. Ankara has been guided by an overriding fear that the zone created in northern Iraq might pave the way to an independent Kurdish state -- a major threat, from Turkey's standpoint, to its own security. Turkish officials began to hope that Saddam would reassert his control over the area. The Gulf War alliance between Turkey and the United States required enormous economic sacrifice from Turkey, which had long enjoyed substantial trade with Iraq. Turkey, moreover, has continued to suffer economically as a consequence of the United Nation's anti-Iraq sanctions regime, which deprived Ankara of considerable revenues from the passage of Iraqi oil through a Turkish pipeline.

Turkey thus began to shift its priorities. The new Islamist government in Ankara now makes no secret of its interest in seeing the sanctions terminated. Recently, Turkey's prime minister sent two high-level emissaries to Baghdad with a special message for Saddam: Ankara wanted to normalize relations between the two countries.

Crushed between Turkey and Baghdad, northern Iraq also had to fend off Syrian influence. Syria backs the terrorists of the Kurdish Workers' Party, or PKK, who maintain bases in northern Iraq from which they strike at Turkey. PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan actually lives in Damascus. Indeed, both of the major Kurdish factions -- Talabani's and Barzani's -- were threatened by the well-armed PKK, which had some 40,000 troops in the area. As a result, in true Middle East fashion, the two Kurdish groups began to court Damascus. In the end, the Barzani faction struck up an alliance with both Saddam and with the PKK. Meanwhile, Talabani turned to Iran for support.

If Washington made a single key strategic error during this confusing period, it was courting Syria's Hafez Assad. Secretary of State Warren Christopher visited Syria repeatedly and Clinton even called on Assad in Damascus. In the end, the wily Syrian dictator saw an opening in northern Iraq and played off one Kurdish faction against another.

Angry at the Kurds for flirting with Damascus, Turkey unwisely turned its back on them. Washington also failed to ensure Kurdish unity. Lacking adequate economic resources, the two key Kurdish factions fell to fighting over resources and power.

Turkey hopes to take advantage of the crisis by contemplating its own military activity. Ankara's goal is to create a permanent security zone from which to strike at PKK terror camps. This development can only complicate the U.S. effort to force Saddam's troops to withdraw from northern Iraq.

Barham Salih of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan claims that this episode "is a victory for Saddam.'' According to Salih, Baghdad has projected itself as a power to be reckoned with. The Kurd argues that Washington's missile attacks amount "to no more than a slap on the wrist.'' Sadly, the Kurdish representative says: "Saddam's gains far outweigh the loss of control. ... Should he succeed, it will be a bad day for those of us who believed in American commitments and American resolve, and a vindication for Saddam, who said the United States cannot be counted on.''

Salih's point is difficult to counter. The United States needs to formulate a coherent policy to force Saddam from northern Iraq or to remove him from power. Air attacks should target Iraqi troops in the north or Baghdad itself. If the Iraqi dictator's recent actions spell the end of the protected northern zone, they constitute a tremendous setback for the United States. America's honor and prestige are at stake.

Lally Weymouth writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post, to which she contributed this comment.