Last week’s under-reported and often misunderstood referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan has caused ructions in the Middle East but also deeply affects our security and trade interests.
The Kurds voted 93-7% for their leaders negotiating eventual independence with Baghdad. Observers from across the world including British parliamentarians agree the poll was fair and free. Yet the air was suddenly choked by dire warnings and threats from Baghdad, which has banned international flights to Kurdistan in a form of collective punishment.
Our diplomats honourably sought to facilitate a consensual deal. The details are private and were considered seriously by the Kurdistani leadership who were prepared until the last moment to delay their referendum but decided the deal was insufficient.
Separation into new states is often frowned upon by old states while the UN upholds the rights of peoples to self-determination. It reminds me of the Eagles’ Hotel California where ‘You can check out any time you like, But you can never leave.’
Squaring that circle requires great care. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson stepped up to the plate by quickly and wisely tweeting that all parties should remain calm and work together to defeat Daesh, or Isis as we know it. He added that ‘Iraq’s future lies in dialogue’ while the ‘UK [is] ready to help.’
Quite right. The Kurds in Iraq are a decent people who defend religious liberty in a mainly and moderate Muslim country where Christians and others seek protection. Kurds have long suffered discrimination, genocide and displacement and put themselves out to look after nearly two million Iraqi Arabs who fled to Kurdistan when Daesh captured Mosul three years ago.
Their Peshmerga took the lead in rolling back Daesh at a huge cost in lives. Their brave resistance makes us all safer and they should be considered a vital part of our own security system.
The Kurds also tried their best for decades to work within Iraq but Baghdad increasingly flouted the constitution that guaranteed minority rights and also deprived them of resources even as they were jointly fighting Daesh. They are clearly pro-Western in outlook and, from my meetings with Kurds, I know they have a great affinity with the British.
Their referendum result does not mean immediate independence. The Kurds are landlocked and cannot just start up a new country without agreements with Baghdad. They also say Kurdistan and Iraq need the closest possible relations to maximise their common security, finalise disputed borders, and maintain water, oil and trade flows. The eventual outcome could even be a new Iraqi federation or a confederation, which means two sovereign countries within one border.
The Kurds cannot be expected to live under a bullying regime in Baghdad that treats them as second class citizens. It sometimes seems that Baghdad leaders are doing everything possible to alienate the Kurds and drive them out. The hope is that the air blockade will be brief and bluster will become dialogue.
The Kurds have made a bold step towards freedom and the West would be wise to recognise the reality. One fear is that any vacuum in Kurdistan could be filled by Russia, which has important business interests in Kurdistan and could attract an isolated Kurdistan into their orbit.
Some readers will ask what this has to do with us. There are strong moral reasons for protecting a plucky people from violence and subordination. But there are also strong political reasons for helping the Kurds find a safe niche for themselves in a volatile region. They admire and share our values, could help solve the separate Kurdish conflict with Turkey, and be a buffer between Sunnis and Shia. This would enhance peaceful co-existence there and therefore help reduce the extremism that has so often means murder and mayhem at home. Boris Johnson’s approach could sustain a cross-party consensus to help our friends and advance our security at the same time.