My focus is on British foreign policy over the last decade during which I have been director of the all-party parliamentary group on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq. My thesis is that the One Iraq policy remains in theory but has been diminished in its firmness by countervailing forces, realities, and more sympathetic views to independence as the feasibility of Iraqi federalism had steadily faded. One Iraq will be the UK’s preferred policy until one day it suddenly isn’t.
I first visited Kurdistan in 2006 and established the APPG the following year. Its formal remit, which was in tune with UK policy, was ‘to promote friendship and understanding between the peoples of the Kurdistan Region in Iraq and the UK and to encourage the development of democratic institutions in the Kurdistan Region as part of the democratic and federal process in the rest of Iraq.’
In 2007, I started talking to a Conservative aide to a senior shadow minister about Kurdistan and she stopped me immediately to insist the Conservatives did not support Kurdish independence. I hadn’t even raised the issue. I took a delegation to Baghdad in 2008 to meet Nouri al Maliki but it wasn’t an issue although most of its members had that year also visited Kurdistan.
Independence was then a far off dream and the focus was on making federalism work. The Iraqi constitution had been agreed in 2005 and the promise of action on Article 140 territories was unbroken or salvageable.
We focused in 2013 on the need to recognise the Anfal genocide against the Kurds and secured formal recognition by the Commons just before the 25th anniversary of Anfal. One argument I often heard was that this campaign was backward looking but my view then, which became stronger later, was that the virus of chauvinism that underpinned Anfal was still alive.
It became increasingly obvious to MPs on parliamentary delegations to Kurdistan that federalism was failing and APPG reports have become increasingly open to independence if not as a firm and collective line.
In late 2013, an APPG delegation visited Kurdistan and also began hearing about a new group called Daesh. In a subsequent debate in the Commons on bilateral relations we urged the Foreign Affairs Committee, a cross-party body whose job is to monitor the performance and policy of the FCO, to establish an inquiry into Anglo-Kurdistan relations.
They began in early 2014. I hoped it would focus on bilateral relations – improved visas, trade promotion, direct air links, genocide recognition and so on. I was frankly nervous that the committee might oppose independence.
But the events of that annus horribulus – Maliki’s cut in the budget, the fall of Mosul, the mass exodus of IDPs, the attack on Erbil, the fall in oil prices and the start of independent oil exports – entirely changed the context.
Myself and the then KRG High Representative to the UK, Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman gave substantial evidence to the committee before and after the fall of Mosul. And the result in January 2015 was much more radical than anticipated.
The substantial report used much of our evidence and broke the taboo on the independence issue. It concluded that ‘We agree with the UK Government that for the time being it is far better that Iraq seeks to recover its unity and strength in order to defeat the common enemy of ISIL. It is also rational to be concerned about the possible consequences of Iraq’s break-up. But the Kurdistan Region’s desire for increased self-governance, or even independence, is itself rational, given its economic potential and demonstrable capacity for effective self-governance, and also understandable, given its recent history. We do not judge that independence is imminent, but it is a medium-term possibility, depending in large part on the Kurdistan Region’s energy export strategy, for which the UK Government should be prepared.
It added that ‘Highly centralised rule under a “strongman” in Baghdad will never work’ and ‘If the Kurdistan Region is to become independent, it should be with the consent of the rest of Iraq. But the UK and its international partners should stand ready to help ensure that any clear expression of will in favour of independence, and on reasonable terms, is accepted and respected.’ The British government formally replied to the FAC report in March 2015 and on the final line above merely said ‘The Government notes the Committee’s conclusion.’
Its overall conclusion on the independence issue was: ‘The Government is committed to a stable, united, democratic and prosperous Iraq. We strongly believe that the Kurds have an important role to play in building that future and that the benefits of remaining part of Iraq far outweigh those of independence. This is ultimately a question for the Kurds and all other Iraqis rather than for the UK. From our engagement with contacts in the KRG and Kurdistan Region more generally, we do not think that the KRG is currently arguing for a move towards full independence.’ That last part has certainly changed.
Just before the 2017 election in May, the House of Lords select committee on international relations issued a report on the new realities of the Middle East. It concluded that ‘It is not a specifically UK interest that countries of the Middle East remain centralised, unitary states. The UK should not devote political will or resources to deliver the goal of unitary and fully-functioning states where this is unattainable, as could well prove to be the case in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen.’ It added that ‘Neither should the UK actively support this process of state unravelling.’
Overall, it dismissed the notion of a Greater Kurdistan but recognised that ‘the Iraqi Kurds… have proven to be an inseparable part of the politics of the region, intimately connected to regional power struggles, and whose political ambitions can no longer be ignored.’
It agreed that ‘the Iraqi Kurds (and their military arm, the Peshmerga) have proven to be the most effective fighting force against Da’esh’ and that the UK should support the Kurdistan Regional Government financially and its Peshmerga forces with military capacity’ but ‘The UK should not, however, support attempts by the Iraqi Kurds to seek independence.’
That final jarring sentence is not in essence dissimilar that of the Commons Committee but it is a red herring in any case. Few Kurds argue, as some used to, that the UK should take the lead in promoting Kurdistani independence as compensation for Sykes-Picot and all that jazz.
It is bad history, in any case, to argue that Kurds were simply denied a state because it ignores the fact that they were beaten to the draw by stronger and more determined new forces while they were divided and lacked sufficient leadership. The lesson for today is not to expect being gifted sovereignty but seizing it by becoming more united and match fit for that possibility in negotiations with Baghdad, clearly much weaker.
The KRG is already stronger and has already done much since 2003 to position itself more positively with governments such as the British, and its people. The UK government and official opposition uphold an inclusive government in Iraq, but the UK and all UN security council powers have consulates-general in Erbil. The 2010 coalition government contemplated closing the consulate-general office to find savings but were persuaded not to.
The UK follows the correct protocol for arms shipments, which are directed through and with the consent of Baghdad. British ministers normally visit Baghdad then Erbil. The KRG in London and Washington have been invited to some key meetings of the anti-Daesh alliance. The KRG High Representative was also recently invited to a major event launching a memorial to the British soldiers who fell in Iraq and Afghanistan.
KRG leaders has also been welcomed separately in London and Washington, as well as other capitals. A joint committee was established between the UK and the KRG on a formal visit by the KRG Prime Minister but was overtaken by the rise of Daesh a few weeks later. The UK Export Finance has recently been extended to cover a major infrastructure programme in Kurdistan.
The Kurds have also won support in public opinion with important effects on foreign policy. My first brief involvement with the Kurds was in 1991 when outraged public opinion and some nifty lobbying by Kurds in the Diaspora in Britain, including a younger Dlawer al Alaldeen, encouraged John Major to push for the no-fly zone and safe haven.
That and the liberation of Iraq in 2003 have ensured a special place for Britain in Kurdish hearts and underpins the KRG view that the UK is a partner of choice and also because the quality of its goods and services as well as political expertise are valued.
However, support for the Kurds and the Peshmerga is somewhat countered by the weight of the anti-war movement in which the current Opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has been central. They opposed the use of RAF jets in Iraq and Syria, despite the crucial role they played in saving Erbil and Kobane, and despite Corbyn’s rhetoric over many years in favour of the Kurds.
A generation of political activists have little idea of Iraq before 2003. During the campaign for Anfal recognition I attended a reception for Labour activists and asked several young people if they had heard of Halabja. One said, very significantly, that he hadn’t heard of Halabja but he had heard of Fallujah. Iraq before 2003 is unknown to many.
Some leftists are critical of the Iraqi Kurds, given their view that the invasion of Iraq was actually a liberation. One veteran leftist Tariq Ali slammed ‘stage Kurds’ for being wheeled into BBC studios to support the invasion. The anger of such activists over what they routinely describe as an immoral and illegal war of aggression for which Blair lied and a million died obstructs liberal interventionism, as it did with disastrous consequences from 2011 in Syria.
I doubt this will constrain the UK from recognising a Kurdish Republic in what it sees as the correct circumstances but it could make it more difficult for a British government to sustain military and other engagement after the military defeat of Daesh. We saw this after the defeat of Al Qaeda in the surge when anti-war and isolationist public opinion in America encouraged premature US withdrawal and the consequent upsurge in Sunni support for resistance to Baghdad.
The APPG, itself a voluntary group with no official standing has attracted increasingly senior MPs into playing an active role. A key member is the British-Kurdish MP, currently candidate, Nadhim Zahawi who was a key member of the FAC in the last Parliament.
The APPG has been able to influence UK policy, is listened to by other MPs with an interest in Kurdistan, and meets regularly with officials, diplomats and ministers. It could continue to play an important role in bringing independent expertise and experience of Kurdistan into parliamentary and political debates. But the crucial crucible is between Erbil and Baghdad.
[Originally published by Rudaw. This is an abridged version of a talk given by Gary Kent to the UKH conference last week on Kurdistan at the crossroads. It is in a personal capacity. Gary Kent became the Director of the all-party parliamentary group on the Kurdistan Region in 2007 but the group has been formally dissolved for the duration of the UK general election. He writes in a strictly personal capacity]