Minutes of the AGM of the APPG on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq.

House of Commons. 14 January 2020.

Attendance. MPs Robert Halfon Mary Glindon, Jack Lopresti, Steve Reed, Stephen Metcalfe, Toby Perkins, Feryal Clark, Jason McCartney, Philip Hollobone, Alicia Kearns, and Lord Clement-Jones.

Also in attendance. Holly Papworth (Robert Halfon). Christine Aird (Mary Glindon). Gary Kent. Karwan Jamal Tahir, Legaa Firas, and Hawre Wahid (Kurdistan Regional Government)

Apologies. Lady Hodgson. Lord McConnell. Henry Smith. Baroness Ramsay. Fabian Hamilton.

Election of Officers. These were agreed. Chair and Registered Contact, Robert Halfon. Co-Chair Steve Reed. Secretary Alicia Kearns. Treasurer. Lord Clement-Jones.

The following MPs were also agreed as Vice-Chairs: Chris Stephens, Phillip Hollobone, Jason McCartney, Toby Perkins, Mary Glindon, Jack Lopresti, Stephen Metcalfe, Henry Smith, Sarah Jones, and Michael Tomlinson plus Lords McConnell, and McNicol and Baroness Ramsay

APPG Secretary Gary Kent presented a brief history of the APPG since 2007 and made some suggestions for future activity.

The KRG High Representative, Karwan Jamal Tahir, outlined the current situation in Kurdistan and Iraq and answered questions.

It was agreed to send a delegation to the Kurdistan Region, timing to be confirmed.

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Questions and answers about UK action in Kurdistan

The UK is committed to the Kurdistan Region according to parliamentary answers provided to APPG Chair Robert Halfon MP, who sought detailed information on bilateral relations with Kurdistan.

Middle East minister, Dr Andrew Murrison told Robert Halfon that the UK continues to enjoy “a close relationship” with the KRG and to support economic and security reform. He says he “reiterated our commitment to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq when I spoke to KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani on 8 January, and these messages were reaffirmed by the British Ambassador to Iraq when he met the political leadership of the Kurdistan Region on 16 January.”

The answers revealed that the UK is providing technical assistance to the tune of £16 million to a World Bank Trust Fund to boost economic reform in Kurdistan and Iraq.

And that the UK helped train nearly 2,300 Peshmerga last year “as part of its long-term commitment to defeating Daesh.”

Another highlight is that, since 2015, the UK has contributed nearly £100 million to the Iraq Humanitarian Pooled Fund, which is administered by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. That amounted in 2018 to $3.2 million to Kurdistan, or about 9% of the total of $36.6 million (including other donor funding).

Dr Murrison also says that the UK has committed £261m in humanitarian support to Iraq since 2014 through its Department for International Development to provide “a vital lifeline to millions with shelter, medical care and clean water.”

The International Trade ministry recorded total trade between the UK and Iraq and Kurdistan at £720m in the year from October 2018 and that this was a 45% increase over the previous year. The ministry says it wants to increase trade and cites participation in a trade conference in Iraq, a trade mission in Kurdistan, and a briefing for British companies by the Consul-General in Erbil as well as doubling UK Export Finance’s market cover from £1bn to £2bn in April 2019.

The trade mission to Kurdistan was suggested to the government by the APPG and took place ten years ago. The group says that there should be another mission. We also need to know how the UK Export Finance’s market cover specifically impacted on Kurdistan.

The answers put the government’s view of the Kurdistan Region on the official record and allow MPs to further explore how to improve relations. The APPG has, for instance, been stressing the need for the UK government to formally invite the KRG political leadership on an official visit to the UK to meet the Prime Minister and others. That would boost the morale and profile of the KRG and enable further detailed discussion about political and economic links.

It is difficult for the layperson to decipher aid statistics compared to the scale of need. MPs will want to drill down on these figures to evaluate how they are making concrete differences. They can do that when the APPG sends a fact-finding delegation to Kurdistan.

Statistics can only go so far in telling the story about aid and trade but the answers to Robert Halfon are a good starting point for understanding and identifying what more could be done.

Gary Kent

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New Chair Robert Halfon MP on why Kurdistan matters to UK foreign and security policy

Conflicts in the Middle East matter to all countries that rely on a delicate skein of commerce, including energy. And nor should we be morally apathetic about the scenes on our screens.

The best response is to find allies who want the Middle East to become the fount of wisdom and scientific advance it was when Europe was tearing itself to pieces in the Middle Ages.

Iraq is the beating heart of the Middle East but is in bloody turmoil as demonstrators in Baghdad face death and injury in seeking justice and reducing Iranian interference. But things are entirely different in the Kurdistan Region, as I have witnessed on five visits with the all-party parliamentary group, which has just elected me its Chair.

My central claim is that Kurdistan is one of the few places in the Middle East that has the capacity for internal change and external emulation. Kurdistan is more stable and more prosperous because their leaders have had longer to overcome the vices of Saddam’s long and brutal dictatorship. Saddam’s forces were evicted in an uprising in 1991 from most of Kurdistan, which was then protected by Sir John Major’s no-fly zone until what they widely describe as the liberation of Iraq in 2003.

They embraced parliamentary democracy and education with new universities but had to overcome their own toxic legacy. Kurdistan was initially divided into two administrative regions under the main parties which conducted a civil war that was ended by external diplomatic intervention.

The Kurds’ desire to work with the West is sustained by many leaders who were exiled here and often carry British passports, and speak with British accents. Four universities teach entirely in English, the unofficial second language. This affinity led most students on a foreign scholarship programme to plump for UK universities.

The inescapable fact that affects their fate is an unenviable geographical position, nestled between Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq which have been hostile in the past. Their political culture is often blind and unkind to the Kurds.

Yet, the Iraqi Kurds have become well-versed in upholding their integrity through adroit management of regional and international relations. They seek to improve relations with the government in Baghdad through fully implementing the federal constitution agreed by the people in 2005. Sadly, that has largely been neglected by leaders in Baghdad who find a formally binational Iraq of equals difficult to swallow and often cleave to traditional command and control strategies.

Kurdistan wants good relations with its neighbours but also wants to freely choose their allies. We should be immensely proud of the fact that the Kurdistan Regional Government identifies the UK as a partner of choice.

The UK and the KRG have also agreed a Reform Partnership. One of its aims is to professionalise and unify the Peshmerga, which remains divided for historic reasons between the two parties rather than being a fully united army accountable to only the government.

However, I praise the Peshmerga and the KRG for successfully maintaining internal security and stability with a record that excels many similar countries, even the UK. Their security also underpins exemplary and natural religious moderation, tolerance and pluralism. Christians, Yazidis, Jews (mostly long gone through no fault of the Kurds) and others are equals. That is a powerful antidote to the extremism of the so-called Islamic State, which remains potent despite major territorial losses at the hands of both the Peshmerga and their Iraqi and international allies.

The immediate result of the killing of Qassem Soleimani was the demand, in a non-binding resolution from an inquorate Iraqi parliament, to expel US and other foreign troops. KRG President Nechirvan Barzani has been crystal clear that this would be unwise and undermine the fight against Isis, which is regrouping in the gap between the Peshmerga and Iraqi soldiers.

But their goal is bigger than mere survival. They embrace the UK and others because they crave vital investment, trade, and capacity-building expertise. They believe that this bolsters what should be seen as urgent reforms to diversify their economy, improve public services, tackle corruption, and boost a vibrant private sector and civil society. They also need quality further, technical, and university education.

The historic legacy makes them dangerously over-reliant on state employment and on oil and gas which they have only been able to exploit since 2006. Energy revenues account for most of their revenue, directly or from the federal Iraqi budget, and isn’t sustainable. They want to boost agriculture, tourism, and light industry. Their bounteous and beautiful countryside could drive the first two and British foreign investment can greatly help all.

Economic diversification would also encourage greater accountability, transparency, and participation by youth, the bulk of the population, and women, who are more prominent than elsewhere but not nearly enough.

The Kurds often say they don’t want to be victims and prisoners of their history and geography. But their delicate geopolitical position has a diplomatic upside. Their experience of navigating what they often dub a tough neighbourhood enables their leaders to better interact with relevant actors to de-escalate tensions and makes the KRG vital for UK foreign and security policy.

They often punch above their weight and can do so more if they get their act together and if we support them. I am urging the UK government to invite KRG leaders on an official visit to meet the Prime Minister and others and deepen and widen our good bilateral relations.

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The inaugural annual meeting of the APPG will be on Tuesday 14 January at 5pm in the Commons. Open to parliamentarians only.

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The election and the APPG

Due to the dissolution of parliament, all APPGs are no longer operating.

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The impact of Syrian events on the Kurdistan Region raised in last FCO questions before the election

On the last day of this parliament, Ian Austin MP used his question to the Foreign Secretary to alert the Commons to the impact of events in Syria on the Kurdistan Region.

Gary Kent

Ian Austin (Dudley North) (Ind)

What assessment he has made of the effect of the US Administration’s decision to withdraw support for Kurdish forces on regional stability.

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and First Secretary of State (Dominic Raab)

The UK has consistently opposed Turkish military action in Syria. We condemned it with our European partners and we are concerned about the impact it will have on stability, on the humanitarian crisis and also on the counter-Daesh effort.

Ian Austin

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. Abandoning the Kurds, who led the fight against IS, has seen over 10,000 refugees fleeing to Iraqi Kurdistan on top of the 1.5 million displaced people it is already generously caring for, so will he increase humanitarian work and the Kurdistan region’s ability to defend itself against Daesh?

Does he agree that this has also strengthened Iran and its proxy terror arming Hezbollah, and that Israel, the middle east’s only democracy, must be protected from that threat?

Dominic Raab

I thank the hon. Gentleman; he has followed this subject for a long period and has experience and insight. We are worried, and our main concerns are around the humanitarian situation and the stability of northern Syria. Notwithstanding the removal of Daesh leader al-Baghdadi, which we welcome, we are worried about the medium-term impact on counter-Daesh strategy in the region. So while we welcome the ceasefire brokered by Vice-President Mike Pence in relation to northern Syria, we are also seeing an accommodation between the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Syrian regime and indeed Presidents Erdoğan and Putin, and that is counter both to our counter-terrorism efforts but also to the humanitarian plight that the hon. Gentleman rightly raises.

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Jack Lopresti MP presses government to continue Peshmerga training in the Kurdistan Region in Iraq

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence, what his policy is on the continuation of the role of British forces in training and equipping Iraqi security forces and Kurdish security forces in the event that the US Administration withdraws its forces from the Kurdistan region in Iraq. (3724)

Tabled on: 22 October 2019

Answer: Mark Lancaster:

The UK has a persistent partnership with Iraq. We are committed to supporting the Iraqi Security Forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga in countering the threat from Daesh. Together with Iraq, we have a shared aim of ensuring Daesh’s enduring defeat, in addition to a long-term commitment to stabilisation of the country. Our efforts to support a stable and prosperous Iraq are vital to UK national security.

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Mary Glindon MP statement on clear and present danger to the Kurdistan Region in Iraq

Statement by Mary Glindon MP, the Chair of the APPG on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq

The Turkish attack on the largely Kurdish area of northern Syria is a humanitarian disaster and Turkey should withdraw immediately before more innocent people are killed.

The action is also a clear and present danger to the people, security, economy, and even existence of the neighbouring Kurdistan Region in Iraq.

As was the case at the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011 it is certain that hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians will seek safety in the Kurdistan Region.

They will be welcomed as their predecessors were and as were Sunni Arabs and Ezedi who fled from Daesh in 2014.

The exodus will put further major strains on the Kurdistan Region and we will ask the UK and others to help mitigate the cost. It seems likely that Syrian refugees will stay in Iraqi Kurdistan for the long term.

The loss of SDF control in northern Syria/Rojava will help revive Daesh which will also present a renewed threat to security in the Kurdistan Region and countering any fresh dangers requires concerted assistance from the UK and others.

Turkish actions could permanently Arabise Kurdish areas in Rojava and there are profound fears in Erbil the Kurdistan Region will be a target in the future.

The APPG on the Kurdistan Region, which has sent 16 delegations there in the last decade, is seeking an urgent meeting with the Middle East minister.

The precipitate US withdrawal is a disaster and efforts to halt Turkish attacks is the priority.
That the Kurds have been cruelly betrayed is obvious to many. The Kurds have been and remain vital allies in resistance to Daesh fascism and for common values of democracy, tolerance, and pluralism whose defence in the Kurdistan Region needs to be a major UK priority.

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Bilateral relations between the Kurdistan Region and the UK

APPG Chair Mary Glindon asked the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to update parliament on its assessment of bilateral relations with the Kurdistan Region in Iraq. The Middle East Minister Dr Andrew Murrison replied on 9 September 2019.

“The UK retains strong relations with the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). British Ministers and officials regularly engage with KRI representatives. On 1 September our Ambassador to Iraq met the KRI Prime Minister, Masrour Barzani, to discuss latest developments and I spoke to the KRI President, Nechirvan Barzani, on 12 June. The UK also provides significant support to the KRI, including through training assistance to the Peshmerga, humanitarian aid, advice on economic reform, and continued efforts to deepen UK-KRI trade.”

Good work and much to build on.

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Geography and column inches

The Kurdistan Region in Iraq inevitably faces problems arising from its geography and related political pathologies because it nestles between Turkey, Iran, Arab Iraq, and Syria. Kurds in four enclaves are widely related but the Kurdistan Region is the only internationally recognised autonomous region in this “tough neighbourhood,” as its leaders regularly describe it to visitors. Their leaders do their best to amplify Kurdistani conundrums and aspirations with international media coverage being vital to its successes or failures.

Few British people have yet visited Iraqi Kurdistan but public opinion here has occasionally boosted its existence, and underpins the UK’s popularity there. The public outrage over Saddam Hussein’s suppression of the Kurds in 1991 was one such moment. President Bush senior encouraged the Kurds, and Shias in the south, to rise up after Saddam’s defeat in Kuwait. When the Baathist regime turned on them, two million fled to the mountains on the borders with Iran and Turkey where many froze to death. Public opinion was shocked and many people contributed food and blankets. My first connection to the Kurds was persuading Iran to supply a 747 to carry donations to the Kurds.

The then Prime Minister, Sir John Major answered the outrage by initiating the no-fly zone that provided a safe haven, policed every day by Western jets, that prevented further genocide and attacks until Saddam was overthrown in 2003.

In the Red House in the middle of Slemani, once a notorious torture centre, you can watch a short video of moving reports from Charles Wheeler, Boris Johnson’s former father-in law as it happens, exposing the misery faced by the Kurds and their pleas for help. The bleak bullet-pocked building is now a museum dedicated to Saddam’s crimes, the history of the Peshmerga, and the war with Daesh including the genocide against the Yezedis. In 2006, I remember the powerfully poignant sight of museum guards watching the live trial of Saddam Hussein.

After taking Mosul, Daesh turned on Kurdistan in August 2014. The then Mayor of London, one Boris Johnson, travelled to Erbil in January 2015 and cradled an AK47 alongside a Peshmerga. The picture was wired around the world and was worth a million words.

The defeat of Daesh as a territorial entity meant that the story slipped from the main news as a job done, although it is far from finished: four Kurdistani security officers were recently killed. Slipping from public view was to have unfortunate consequences.

Following the referendum on independence from Iraq in September 2017, Iran, for its own strategic reasons, bolstered Iraqi attempts to diminish the territory and powers of the Kurdistan Region.

Baghdad’s backlash was sadly obscured in the column inches by a referendum in a better known place: the bid by Catalonia for statehood and the consequent crackdown by Madrid. This allowed Baghdad to seize Kirkuk with little coverage and therefore potentially decisive external intervention. The dearth of hard information made it difficult to persuade senior MPs to make statements because they had so little to go on.

Iraq taking control of Kirkuk and other disputed territories was wrongly seen as a routine adjustment, although it caused the deaths of about 100 Peshmerga. Kirkuk and the other disputed territories could have been under KRG, federal government or joint control pending the long delayed finalization of their status via mechanisms in the 2005 Iraqi constitution.

Sparse coverage emboldened Iraq to press its hand and to seek to invade undisputed Kurdistan and taking the main airport. The Peshmerga resisted and Baghdad failed. New governments in Baghdad and in Erbil are now resetting their relations.

And then something else makes the news – the recent assassination of a Turkish diplomat in the capital, Erbil by those who appear to be from an external force. News is the deviation from the norm and coverage was completely correct because the murder of diplomats breaks a basic rule of international relations and Erbil has long been an oasis of security and stability.

I feared the news would chill the fresh start that requires investors and tourists to boost economic prospects but it has been absorbed by those who understand that the Kurdistan Region has long proved resilient in keeping the show on the road. And the Kurdistan authorities were quick off the mark in capturing the alleged perpetrators.

The Kurds in Iraq have developed the knack of surviving and thriving but the hard truth, as other countries know, is that a few column inches can make all the difference.

Gary Kent is the Secretary of the APPG on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq, a visiting professor at Soran University, and has visited the Kurdistan Region 29 times since 2006. He writes in a personal capacity.

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