The tough neighbourhood

Kurds are becoming a major new factor in the Middle East and could overcome old injustices and fashion new alliances for the better.

A generation ago the plight of the Kurds was dire in all four countries where they mainly live – Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria following the failure to allow them an independent state in the aftermath of the end of the First World War and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. It is, as I have often been told, a tough neighbourhood.

The worst fate befell the Iraqi Kurds who faced systematic efforts to eliminate them from the early 1960s to the late 1980s. A spiral of increasingly vicious measures, particularly under Saddam Hussein, culminated in the flattening of thousands of villages and nearly 200,000 people killed in the late 80s. The most powerful symbol of this was the slaughter of 5,000 people at Halabja by weapons of mass destruction.

The APPG on the Kurdistan Region is supporting an epetition urging the UK Government to recognise the genocide. It can be found at

But the Kurds have bounced back, especially in Iraqi Kurdistan since its uprising in 1991 and the successful intervention that was the no-fly zone policed by America, Britain and France.

Here they have embraced democracy and have gone from dirt poor to a coming place thanks to about 3% of the world’s known oil reserves under their territory. Iraqi Kurdistan could produce 1 million barrels per day by 2014 and 2 million in 2019. However, the landlocked region is reliant on its neighbours to turn these assets into revenues.

Sadly, Baghdad is antagonistic to the Kurdistan Region and the federal settlement agreed in 2005 has yet to be fully implemented. The main issues concern whether the Kurdish military forces are funded by federal or regional funds, the status of territories that the Kurds say should be part of their region (the forcibly Arabised city of Kirkuk is a key flashpoint), revenue-sharing and a law governing the exploitation of energy resources.

The quantity of often easily available oil and gas in a safe environment and without the sluggish and unsafe miasma of the rest of the country have made Kurdistan an attractive proposition for oil companies.

The decision of four of the world’s top ten oil majors to enter the Kurdish market is a significant vote of confidence but has enraged Baghdad which has blustered but has been unable to force the companies to recant.

It may not be long before most majors are in Kurdistan which would put considerable pressure on Baghdad to compromise with rather than confront Kurdistan.

I hope that Tony Hayward, the former head of BP and now Genel Chief Executive is right in saying that “Over the next year or two, Kurdistan production capacity will grow towards 1 million barrels a day – that’s too much oil to be shut in as a consequence of a political dispute. So one way or another, it’s going to get resolved.”

But Baghdad oil can only be exported via a pipeline controlled by Baghdad which receives all revenues and can withhold the Kurdish share. If the Kurds cannot export they have to sell the oil to the domestic market at much lower prices.

However, in May the Iraqi Kurds and the Turks announced oil and gas pipelines from the Kurdistan Region to Turkey. The first pipeline is due to be completed in August 2013.

The Kurds could then export energy without Baghdad’s approval, supply the fast-growing  economy of Turkey which could become an energy hub and a positive part of the European energy equation. And the whole question is becoming a live part of the ancient enmity between Sunni and Shia Islam, accelerated by the Syrian crisis.

Baghdad supports Assad, as does Iran, but Turkey now favours regime change in Syria, as do the main Sunni Arab states. The equation is massively complicated further by the 28 year war between the PKK and Turkey, which has killed up to 40,000 people.

The Kurdistan Region President, Massoud Barzani has also been instrumental in forging unity between the divided Syrian Kurdish forces, which favour federal arrangements similar to that of Iraqi Kurdistan. Turkey fears that the PKK will use this territory to pursue its war.

The APPG and the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee have drawn parallels with the Northern Ireland peace process. One similarity with Northern Ireland is that the shape of the deal has long been clear. The PKK and Turkey cannot achieve their aims through military action. Turkey can best guarantee its borders by generously tackling the causes of Kurdish discontent. The PKK can best achieve autonomy and cultural rights within Turkey if it lays down its arms.

This leaves Baghdad’s antagonism to the Iraqi Kurds. Iraq gains much from the autonomous Kurdistan Region which shows a potential future for the whole of the country and supplies many leading figures in the government. My hope is that the federal settlement can encourage new relations, based on mutually beneficial economic self-interest, to overcome old divisions between these neighbours.

The Kurds have come far since the dark days of genocide and will need all their skills and international support to bring this benign scenario into being. A more confident Iraqi Kurdistan could be also a key actor in boosting the hopes that the Arab Spring will mean freedom, pluralism and economic progress at last.

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