The British debate about Kurdexit

When Daesh menaced Kurdistani cities in 2015, London Mayor Boris Johnson visited British troops training the Peshmerga and was pictured with an AK47 alongside a Peshmerga. He had previously met ‘a dynamic and forward-looking young politician,’ Nechirvan Barzani, ‘the prime minister of the fledgling state of Kurdistan’ and wrote that ‘…we should help because we have a moral duty to that part of the world. It was the British who took the decision in the early Twenties to ignore the obvious ethnic divisions, and not to create a Kurdistan,’ which he described as ‘one of the few bright spots in the Middle East.’

Two years later, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has issued a formal statement on the referendum on Kurdistani independence in September. The text is worth citing in full: ‘We note the announcement by the government of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq regarding a referendum on independence. We understand the aspirations of the Kurdish people and continue to support them politically, culturally and economically within Iraq. But a referendum at this time will distract from the more urgent priorities of defeating Daesh, stabilising liberated areas and addressing the long-term political issues that led to Daesh’s rise. Any referendum or political process towards independence must be agreed with the Government of Iraq in Baghdad. Unilateral moves towards independence would not be in the interests of the people of Kurdistan Region, Iraq or of wider regional stability.’

It adds: ‘The UK supports a stable, democratic and unified Iraq, one that is able to provide the security, jobs and healthcare and education all Iraqis want and deserve. We urge all parties to engage in dialogue to deliver a better future for their people on the basis of the Iraqi Constitution.’
His passionate plea for solidarity and his restatement of the FCO’s One Iraq policy are not in conflict. I suggest analysis of the recent statement falls into three parts: timing, viability, and morality.

The Foreign Secretary says this is not the time given the priority of defeating Daesh and resolving Sunni issues. But the military defeat of Daesh in Mosul is imminent and a referendum in September will not affect that.

Iraq effectively disintegrated three years ago and is a failed state. The Kurds are entitled to decide how to relate to a new Iraq whose governance is up for negotiation. September is a good time for the Kurds to secure a mandate for negotiations with Baghdad. The Kurds agreed to remarry Iraq in 2003 and did their best to make it work but their natural right to self-determination did not expire on its first use.

Viability is not explicitly mentioned in the FCO statement but is a concern. The Kurds have made massive political and economic advances since 1991. They achieved a rapprochement with Turkey, developed their energy sector from scratch, boosted living standards, and transformed their cities. But they are hobbled by major internal differences that resulted in parliament being suspended, and a dysfunctional economy whose deep flaws have been exposed and exacerbated by external crises.

Most parties have endorsed the referendum but some Kurds and friends argue that they should get their house in order before a referendum. Indeed, they should move more quickly. The international community’s patience over the reactivation of parliament is fading and a referendum would be more credible if parliament is restored.

Transforming a top-heavy statist economy with massive reliance on one commodity and boosting private enterprise is widely accepted in theory and practical steps are being taken to reduce the deficit. But no new state is born in perfection and independence could boost reform and allow access to development and capacity-building resources that are denied a sub-sovereign entity. In any case, independence is conceived not as a total rupture but a collaborative process.
As for morality, normative arguments don’t cut the mustard with hard headed ministers and diplomats. Kurds can, however, highlight common strategic interests: that an independent Kurdistani state will remain a good military ally to the West, a buffer between Sunnis and Shias, a reliable source of energy, and a beacon of pluralism and religious tolerance.

The UK and other statements will not stop the Kurds acting as they see fit. Independence has acquired a greater urgency because Iraqi federalism has failed. Sovereignty is the last resort for the Kurds who have spent many decades seeking equality, autonomy, and full federalism.
They got genocide in the second half of the twentieth century and were rescued by the international community. They have suffered economic sabotage by Baghdad since 2014 even when they and the Iraqis together faced an existential threat. Iraq’s failure to stop Daesh capturing its second city of Mosul underlines the Kurdistani fear that Iraq cannot protect them.

The Iraqi and Peshmerga’s unprecedented military co-operation co-exists with Baghdad shirking its responsibilities in helping nearly two million internally displaced people, mostly Iraqi Arabs, who have been welcomed by the KRG, although it has severely strained their resources and capacity.
The dynamics of Iraqi politics are also becoming post-federal as Shia elites want majority rule which means tyranny for minorities, as former Iraqi foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari told me recently in Kurdistan.

Otherwise, the Kurds and their friends could reasonably urge those who want progress under the Iraqi constitution to help reinstate federalism, and reduce the urgency of Kurdistani sovereignty. It does not seem likely they can persuade Baghdad to do this and the Kurds won’t accept subordination and inequality. They have sacrificed too much blood and treasure. And many Kurds worry that the Islamicisation of Iraq politics will threaten their moderate religiosity and tolerance for different faiths and none.

Furthermore, the treatment of the Kurds by Nouri al Maliki, in particular, is connected to the radicalisation of Sunnis who came to prefer Daesh to Baghdad. If the Kurds, who were long allies of the Shia, can be treated that badly then Sunnis could expect worse.

Brits have warmed to the Kurds thanks to their bravely resisting the common enemy of Daesh. People know a good friend when they see one. Kurdistani diplomacy has assiduously won allies, many of whom see the establishment of an independent state as both deserved and necessary. And the APPG and other political, cultural and commercial bodies have helped promote partnership. Kurdexit is now firmly on the agenda.

Gary Kent is the director of All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG). He writes this column for Rudaw in a personal capacity. The address for the all-party group is views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.

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