The results of this weekend’s Iraqi parliamentary elections will take time to emerge and a stable coalition may take several months to form. One of the issues in the election was the so far failed attempt by the Kurdistan Region to eventually leave what the Iraqi constitution declares is a voluntary union. And the status of Kurdistan is clearly a key issue in the negotiations that begin soon.
The consensus is that Kurdistan’s quest for statehood is over but I am less sure. We are so used to the current map of the world that we often forget its history, and therefore the possible fates of trapped and repressed nations.
Poland was gobbled up by the Tsarist Empire and only re-emerged from the chaos of the collapse of empires at the end of the First World War and because it suited the needs of British and French imperialism, which also found that an independent Kurdistan was not a priority.
Poland enjoyed two decades of independence before it was carved up by the Nazis and the Soviets and then turned by Stalin into a vassal state in the Soviet Empire. The collapse of the Soviet bloc allowed its freedom, that of other states in Moscow’s orbit, and the (re)creation of countries such as the Baltic States, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Ukraine.
Even then, the status quo exercised a stronghold with Mrs. Thatcher initially opposing the rebirth of a single German state. The international community is not generally geared, despite several seminal declarations on the right to self-determination, to accept new countries. But this is not a permanent condition.
Clearly, the US, the UK, France, the EU, and the UN were not ready to accept a new Kurdish state last year. Larger claims on their policy priorities and fears of what would happen drove them to conclude that the Kurds should remain in Iraq.
One can argue that this was an unfair reaction to a decisive and peaceful vote to seek eventual independence by negotiation with Baghdad. Kurdish leaders were entitled to conclude that this could be the Kurdistani moment following positive discussions with leaders in Baghdad, Turkey, and two successive American administrations.
Yet, as many suggested at a recent Commons meeting I chaired on the causes and consequences of the 2017 Kurdistani referendum, things changed dramatically as the referendum drew nearer. Political leaders avoid decisions until they have to and perhaps they thought that the referendum was a bargaining tool that would be kicked into the long grass. It was only in the last stages of the referendum that America sought to persuade the Kurds to defer it.
The balance of forces shifted suddenly against independence in an inadvertently dialectical manner: America’s tardy decision-making emboldened Iran, which identified a vacuum it could exploit by deploying its military prowess and that of its Shia militia allies and bolstering a harsher Baghdad reaction, despite Abadi’s participation in negotiations that included the possibility of a later referendum if internal negotiations failed.
The Kurdish quest was crushed in a spectacular manner but one speaker at the Commons debate concluded that Kurdistan is too big an issue to ignore but not yet big enough to solve. Kurdistan remains an odd entity in international relations: it is more than a collection of provinces but not quite a nation. Peshmerga officers are formally enrolled in the UK Defence Academy, which is the case for no other sub-sovereign state, and the Peshmerga receives separate funding and assistance from America and others.
The London Times underlined the uniqueness of Kurdistan with a leading article, entitled Stand by the Kurds. It based its case on a significant error: that America abandoned the Kurds and the Shia when they heeded calls to rise up against Saddam after his defeat in Kuwait in 1991. The Shia in the south were left high and dry but in the north, the UK initiated a no-fly zone and safe haven which was patrolled by American, British and French jets for the next 12 years.
But the Times was right in arguing that the Kurds are “more secular, more democratic in inclination than many others in the region, and with an understandable claim for nationhood,” and while “there are no easy solutions in the fragmented, sometimes chaotic and all too often horribly violent geopolitics of the region….insofar as a good policy can be discerned, it is for the world’s greatest democratic and military power not to abandon its friends and allies. This is a principle that holds true, whatever expediency suggests.”
The safe haven was a massive gain for the Kurds and inserted them into UK foreign policy planning on an unprecedented scale. The consensus at the Commons meeting was that it is too early to know the consequences of the referendum: whether it ends or is a milestone to independence. Kurdistan remains pivotal in geographical, political and security terms and need not face a dark future if it gets its act together in league with a savvy solidarity movement. One day, a different configuration of forces in the Middle East could make a Kurdistani state viable and necessary.
Gary Kent is the Secretary of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG). He writes here in a personal capacity.