After Mosul: independence for the Kurdistan Region?

Introduction to APPG on the Kurdistan Region report of its delegation to Kurdistan in November 2016 by Jack Lopresti MP (Delegation Leader and Chairman of the APPG)

The Kurdistan Region in Iraq has made massive strides since its uprising against Saddam in 1991 first won a perilous autonomy that was protected by Sir John Major’s No Fly Zone until the liberation of Iraq in 2003. In a generation, it has endured genocide and civil war, was formally recognised in Iraq’s federal constitution before becoming the world’s new oil frontier with soaring living standards, and then suffered an economic tsunami, and near catastrophic military calamities.

The Kurds have survived, are on the global political map, and may now be on the cusp of statehood if they secure a yes vote in the referendum on 25 September, which they see as providing a mandate for negotiating divorce terms with the government of Baghdad.

The APPG, which celebrates a decade of active solidarity with the Kurdistani people this year, has highlighted the achievements of Kurdistan and sought support for them. We persuaded the Commons in 2013 to formally recognise the genocide carried out by Saddam Hussein against the Kurds in the 1980s. We also encouraged Top Gear to film a high-profile programme in Kurdistan and its presenters’ remarks on its beauty and safety put it on the map for many.

The watchwords of our dozen delegations have been to witness Kurdistan without any restrictions and show ‘tough love’ towards our Kurdistani friends. Those form the spirit of this latest report. We would not be good friends if we failed to highlight an economic model that sustains poor productivity and imperils its potential to increase the well-being of its people.

Kurdistani leaders welcome our approach because advice from trusted friends – they formally consider the British as ‘a partner of choice’ – helps bolster arguments for change. The President of the independent Middle East Research Institute put it very well in a briefing to us at the Commons. Dlawer al Alaldeen’s message to Kurdistan’s Western friends is ‘you should help the Kurds become the partner you deserve.’

This report focuses on a whirlwind delegation just after the start of the operation to free Mosul when MPs visited the three main cities of the Kurdistan Region and Mosul. We have waited until now to release the report because the all-consuming fight against Daesh had frozen developments in Iraq, which will now move centre stage.

John Bolton, the former American ambassador to the UN, wrote in April 2017 that ‘complex, seemingly intractable issues lie ahead, as the post-First World War Middle East order collapses, but they cannot be ignored under the complacent assumption that Syria and Iraq will simply re-emerge..and that ‘the Kurds are already de facto independent from Iraq and no one will force them back into Iraq against their will.’

The Daesh crisis was accompanied by a hibernation in internal Kurdistani politics but its aftermath allows and requires resolution of its rifts and ailments. These are deep-seated but have been exacerbated and exposed by recent crises.

Kurdistan’s economic problems have also been analysed very well. Last year, the World Bank Group released a roadmap, Reforming the Economy for Shared Prosperity and Protecting the Vulnerable, which serves as an economic guide to help policy makers address both immediate and longer term challenges in Kurdistan.

Before that, the APPG urged the Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) in 2013 to undertake an inquiry into the state of UK-Kurdistan Relations, and it conducted a major investigation, which reported in January 2015. Our initial expectation was that it would concentrate on issues that marred and restricted the Anglo-Kurdistani relationship: the need for improvements in visa processing, direct aviation links, and more efforts to encourage British trade and investment, for example. These remain vital issues.

Yet the context of that inquiry rapidly changed. After the inquiry began, profound events pummelled Kurdistan in 2014: the complete and unconstitutional cut in federal budget transfers, the rise of Daesh and their capture of one third of Iraq, the dramatic decline in oil prices, and the influx of now nearly two million refugees and internally displaced people. Daesh came within 20 miles of the capital, Erbil and the menace was averted by American air action in August 2014. Otherwise, many thousands would have been killed.

The final and substantial report of the FAC provides a detailed guide to Kurdistan’s problems and potential as well as a menu for improved Anglo-Kurdistani relations but also broke new ground with its sympathetic understanding of the possibilities of independence.

I am not talking about the century old dream of a Greater Kurdistan carved out of territories in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. That could now spark inter-state war and/or a civil war between Kurds whose interests and leaders have diverged. There may be a virtual Kurdistan but it is certain there will be four distinct Kurdistans, just as there are many separate Arab nations, and Kurdish leaders in all four regions recognise this.

Kurdistan’s divisions, political defects and economic dysfunctionality could be a bigger impediment to independence than international opposition. Even if oil prices returned to levels above $100, it would leave an economy that is dangerously over-reliant on energy exports and state employment. The largely rentier economy needs to be rebalanced and diversified in any case for its long-term health.

Tough love and candid dialogue from friends are, therefore, more essential to encourage the Kurds to make their society match fit whether they stay in or leave Iraq, although persuading Kurds to remain part of Iraq would require credible guarantees given the litany of broken promises and arbitrary behaviour by leaders in Baghdad.

Kurdistani leaders stress that they want to negotiate a deal with Baghdad, which would enable foreign powers to more easily accept the outcome. They also emphasise that an amicable divorce could vastly improve relations between Erbil and Baghdad in what I call a special relationship.

Independence is a matter for discussion between Erbil and Baghdad in the first place and ultimately for the Kurds in Iraq. Their contribution is also essential to the complex process of reconstruction, demining, deradicalisation, and devising protections for minorities who bore the brunt of the Daesh genocide. The Kurds have no territorial designs on Mosul but are keen to have a say on the stabilisation of their near neighbour.

Another major issue is resolving the status of the disputed territories, now back in Kurdistani hands after the Peshmerga protected Kirkuk from Daesh, as the Iraqi Army retreated, and after they liberated Shingal in November 2015. The Kurdistan Region needs fixed borders to avoid revanchism stretching for generations ahead. They are rightly wary of the potential for violence from the Shia militia on this. They also know they have to reassure their neighbours that independence would present no threat to them.

But I agree with the FAC that independence for the Kurds in Iraq should be accepted and respected by the UK and its international allies if Erbil and Baghdad achieve an amicable divorce. Sovereignty could unlock international funds and development assistance so far denied a sub-sovereign state and assist reform. It would enable the new republic to take control of its defence and destiny, which I believe could be a bonus for the free world.

There is less full-throttled opposition by many foreign powers to the independence of the Kurds in Iraq because they have proved themselves to be a valiant and vital ally in the fight against fascism. They held the line when the Iraqi Army was in crisis following its humiliating defeat by Daesh, without a shot being fired.

Yet the Kurds have accomplished this with too few arms – especially heavy weapons – and at the cost of a huge sacrifice in Peshmerga deaths and injuries. The APPG will continue to make the case for the British and other governments supplying heavy weapons and also providing free beds, as other countries do, in our specialist hospital in Birmingham for some of the most seriously injured Peshmerga.

Above all, the West must not walk away once Daesh is defeated in Mosul and Raqqa. President Obama did that after the success of President Bush’s surge in 2007 and the Obama retreat was a major factor in the formation of Daesh.

The conditions that cultivated the Daesh death cult have yet to be resolved. Kurdistani leaders have repeatedly warned British MPs and the international community that failure to tackle the alienation of Sunnis could lead to the emergence of Daesh Mark 3. It will take huge efforts to reconcile Sunnis in Mosul, who have suffered three years of severe repression and brutality.

The Kurds in Iraq, with their longer experience of state-building and greater coherence, can make a major difference. They have maintained their integrity in their dealings with their neighbours and the rapprochement with Turkey is testament to their diplomatic skills. Before the rise of Daesh there were also encouraging signs of co-operation between Sunni neighbouring Sunni dominated provinces and the then economically dynamic Kurdistan Region, which exported spare electricity to them. This was despite Sunnis being a key component of the genocidal actions of the Saddam Hussein regime.

But playing a constructive role externally requires settling internal issues. There are promising signs of a thaw in Kurdistan’s needlessly divided internal politics. The Kurdistani commitment to democracy, pluralism, tolerance and secularism has been its most attractive feature. Any move to independence is best accompanied by the revival of the role of their Parliament, frozen since October 2015.

The second party, Gorran (the Change movement) which is a breakaway from an established party could become the formal Opposition and that role, essential to vibrant democracies, could be cultivated by external assistance.

Kurdistan is a strong ally of the West with the potential to be a powerful example to the rest of the Middle East. If it were to achieve statehood, it could be welcomed into international alliances such as Nato and the Commonwealth. My view is that Kurdistan and the West would also benefit from an American base in Kurdistan, and the dollarisation of the economy.

But the Kurds should get their act together, nurture a new patriotic work ethic and entrepreneuliasm, and refuse to be their own worst enemies in the dramatically changing geopolitics of the Middle East. And in return the Kurds deserve much more support from the UK and the West.

Jack Lopresti MP

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