Often a niche interest in international relations, the Kurds have in recent years see-sawed between being seen as the modern equivalent of a plucky little people to a faraway country of which we know little. The West needed them, praised their bravery, and still does to some extent but how quickly they have faded from the headlines, especially in Iraq. I’d wager that few people know that international flights to the Kurdistan Region, the focus of my article, have been suspended for five months.
The Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, chaired by rising Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat, and which probes the policies and performance of the FCO, has just produced a short report on Kurdish aspirations and the interests of the UK. Its overall fear is that “Those who fought against Daesh shared an enemy, but differed in their vision for what should replace it. Now, as Daesh is defeated, past victories risk causing tomorrow’s wars. The UK’s interests are threatened by these conflicts, and examples involving Kurdish groups have already occurred.”
The report examines the Kurdish position in Iraq, Syria and Turkey but omits those in Iran, about whom they received no evidence. It agrees with senior Kurdish witnesses that while the imagination of a ‘Greater Kurdistan’ has been salient, it is not now a practical political objective as “the new generation thinks about their own piece of Kurdistan.”
The report endorses Britain’s One Iraq policy with change only being agreed with Baghdad. It praises the UK’s efforts to persuade the Kurds to defer their referendum last September in return for the great powers backing a structured dialogue between Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region in Iraq, (KRI) and Baghdad on all outstanding issues, with the possibility of a later referendum supported by them.
The Kurds went ahead with the referendum, to which the violent reaction of the Iraqi state included the seizure of Kirkuk and the blockade on flights. Fortunately, the Committee does not leave it there as an undisputed sovereign action. It observes that “Many Kurds feel imprisoned in a country that they see as not implementing its commitments of equality to them. The FCO must therefore (my emphasis) press for these commitments to be fulfilled. The FCO should press the government of Iraq to lift the restrictions placed on the Kurdistan Region of Iraq after the referendum” and “relations between Baghdad and the KRI are now at an historic low, and the risk of fighting was described to us as being high.”
It further observes that “the overwhelming vote in favour of independence was a manifestation of deep frustration and dissatisfaction with the KRI’s place in Iraq,” and that restrictions imposed by Baghdad “will inevitably be seen as punitive, and collectively so.” It says when these restrictions are combined with the role of the Shia militias connected with Iran in confronting the Kurds they “are only likely to encourage the Kurds on the path to departure rather than integration.”
It makes several recommendations that, if implemented by the British government, could boost the UK’s role in defending the Kurds. The FAC accepts the ministerial view that the UK cannot mediate on a sovereign matter but concludes that “The FCO should offer itself alongside international partners in an enhanced role of facilitating dialogue, and should secure the backing and support of the wider international community to play such a role,” given that “different interpretations of the constitution are raising tensions and risking conflict.”
The report caveats this with “if desired” by Baghdad but says it would be “an offer from a sincere and concerned ally that has a long history of close ties and cooperation with both sides and a shared interest in preventing conflict. The FCO should also secure the backing and support of the wider international community to play such a role.”
The report says disputes in the different Kurdistans can only be resolved locally but urges the FCO to “support meaningful political participation and representation for Kurds, as well as cultural recognition, equal rights, and economic opportunities for them, underpinned by national constitutions and achieved through negotiation, as a means of fulfilling Kurdish aspirations. It is not in the UK’s interests for any state to deny Kurdish identity through law or force. It is likewise not in the UK’s interests for Kurdish groups to seek their goals through violence or unilateral moves.”
The MPs also suggest that the UK “should supply and encourage others to provide capacity-building courses and training that equip KRI policy-makers and others with the greater ability to promote political reform and economic reform and diversification.”
It asks the FCO to “not shy away” but set out assessments of the role of Shia militias in retaking disputed territories such as Kirkuk, whether reports of crimes being committed by them are credible, and how much Iran supports, or controls, these militias. Given that the role of the Shia militias and Iran was obscured in and after the attack on Kirkuk, this could usefully redress the balance of blame for the Iraqi reaction to the peaceful referendum.
The report also says “The FCO must be prepared to criticise both Baghdad and the Iraqi Kurds when criticism is due,” and urges the FCO to explain its response to what it describes as corruption and the monopolization of power or curtailment of democracy in Kurdistan. Corruption, it adds, is a serious problem in Iraq in general, and could impede reconstruction.
The FAC report is less substantial than the one released by a previous FAC in 2015, but that took a year, involved visits to Iraq and Kurdistan, and focused exclusively on UK-KRG relations, while this involved no visits, and also examined other Kurdistans.
The useful FAC report can only recommend actions to the Government, which will respond within two months. It won’t automatically change British policy or Baghdad’s bullying but at least shows they are both being watched carefully.
* The full report can be read here.
Gary Kent is the Deputy Chair of the European Technology and Training Centre in Erbil and has visited Kurdistan 25 times since 2006 but writes in a personal capacity. @garykent