A personal view by Gary Kent, Director of the APPG
Watching the dramatic events unfolding in Kurdistan from afar has been fraught and frustrating for friends of Kurdistan. We wanted to know which news reports to believe, how to identify bargaining gambits and disentangle rhetoric, and the detail of the diplomatic demarches from the US, the UK and the UN.
The key principle is the right to exercise self-determination. It was up to the Kurds to decide if that meant delaying the referendum, proceeding with the referendum and creating a bargaining process with Baghdad that could result in independence, a renewed federalism or some form of confederation. Leaders listened to and considered the alternative path but have decided to proceed with the referendum.
Friends also need to understand why governments friendly to the KRG opposed the referendum. My summary of their position is that established states rarely back secession in advance as that would constitute an interference in the internal affairs of states. A Yes vote, in my view, would establish a settled will to securing statehood, which UN declarations also say is an inalienable right. How these are squared is a political not technocratic question. The rule of thumb is that new nations seize the chance and persuade the world to recognise them after the fact.
The UK and the others were operating the first part of this equation but went further than formally stating their opposition. They strongly and directly urged the Kurdistani leadership to delay the referendum but have not threatened sanctions if their appeals were not heeded and have, indeed, made it clear that their strong bilateral relations will continue.
Diplomats were also worried that a referendum would divide allies in the continuing fight against Daesh, destabilise the wider region, undermine Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi before the scheduled Iraqi elections next year, and that the Shia militia could attack Kirkuk.
There are strong counter-arguments. The lack of political unity between Erbil and Baghdad and domestic divisions made no difference to the campaign to liberate Mosul. Kurdistani leaders are well versed in the complexities of co-existence in a tough neighbourhood. They reject war, conquest and coercion but will defend their homeland and don’t see why they should remain imprisoned in a dysfunctional and increasingly sectarian Iraq that does not respect minority rights.
The West is understandably concerned about developments in Iraq and Abadi is better than Maliki, although I also remember how the Americans stubbornly supported Maliki despite growing evidence that his policies were disastrous.
Yet, if the West had been able to secure a reliable deal with Baghdad backed by solid international and UN guarantees then deferring the referendum would have been possible. The trouble for the Kurds is who to trust or depend on in Baghdad after so many years of broken promises and worse.
Some years back, the Provisional IRA had a similar dilemma although I am not suggesting moral equivalence with the KRG. The IRA’s problem in concluding agreements with the British and Irish governments centred on the concept of parliamentary sovereignty. Neither government could bind successive governments or parliaments in principle but lasting agreements were secured in practice. That is far less certain with Baghdad as no one knows if Abadi can stay in power or if Maliki or someone else could replace him.
The understandable fear in Kurdistani minds and that of their friends is that the Kurds will be seen as lesser people, pawns in the great geopolitical game, and once again abandoned. However, new and strong countervailing pressures show times have changed significantly since the Kurds always said that they have no friends but the mountains.
The British public was shocked to see Kurds dying in the mountains in 1991 and this helped persuade the UK to initiate the no-fly zone. This brought the Kurds into British politics where they have consolidated their position ever since as their diplomats cemented links with the government, parties, civil society and others since freedom was achieved in 2003. This is also the case in America, France, Germany and elsewhere. More and more foreign friends have seen the success and potential of Kurdistan for themselves. Most of the MPs who spoke in a major parliamentary debate in July had been to Kurdistan on APPG visits.
Western opinion also knows that the Peshmerga are a reliable ally in stopping Daesh and that smashing Daesh ultimately increases our safety. They admire the religious pluralism of Kurdistan and know it provides sanctuary to Christians and others.
But public opinion could prove fickle and turn its attention elsewhere without constant efforts to keep and win friends. My hope is that the APPG, which is independent of the KRG and HMG (Her Majesty’s Government) but works with both, can increase its influence in the coming complex times. Friends around the world also need to up their game and better co-ordinate solidarity and support efforts. But ultimately the Kurds are in the driving seat as they navigate their way to freedom.