Theresa May has had a lot on her hands but has found time to help resolve the standoff between two important allies, the Kurdistan Region in Iraq and the federal government in Baghdad.
May is inviting the Kurdistani Prime Minister to Downing Street for talks next year. Nechirvan Barzani has been before but this will be the first such meeting with a British Prime Minister. Its importance is further lifting Baghdad’s blockade on Kurdistani leaders meeting international allies.
Baghdad has banned international flights to and from Kurdistan. Barzani recently managed to use the land route through Turkey to visit the French President in Paris. But the German Foreign Minister was denied permission to visit the capital, Erbil after official meetings in Baghdad. Such obstructiveness flows from Baghdad’s fierce reaction to a referendum in September seeking eventual and negotiated independence from Iraq.
The Kurds are stuck between competing international relations doctrines and ambiguities in the Iraqi constitution. The theory of international relations in various UN declarations favours self-determination but the practice privileges existing sovereign states.
The Iraqi constitution says Iraq is a free union of peoples including Arabs and Kurds. But it also says the federal government should protect the country’s territorial integrity and uphold the federal constitution.
It was flagrant flouting of many federal provisions that forced Kurds to seek statehood. Even the Iraqi supreme court that pronounced the referendum as constitutional is not part of the same constitution. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson acknowledges that the Iraqi constitution has never been fully implemented.
The Kurds voted clearly for statehood but the Iraqi government, in league with Iran, took unconstitutional action to compel surrender of their desire to leave. Given Kurdistan is landlocked they got their way.
The worry is that Baghdad leaders are acquiring a taste for strongman actions that are feathers in the cap for the current Iraqi Prime Minister, keen to prevent harder-line Shia politicians from ousting him in elections next year.
The UK and the US urged the Kurds to defer their ambitions with a promise of structured negotiations and a possible internationally supported referendum in two years. The Kurds went ahead and have at least established in this generation the widespread desire for statehood. It’s off the table now and the KRG accepts that. But Baghdad has so far refused all pleas for dialogue and international mediation.
The British PM treads a delicate and diplomatic line on this but Kurds are buoyed by her invitation. Its basis is that Iraq is indivisible but May also says the UK will continue to fight to protect the identity and rights of the Kurdish people under the Iraqi constitution. May also says the UK will continue to encourage reform to strengthen Kurdistan’s institutions and deliver for the Kurdish people.
This invitation bolsters the Kurds whose decent, democratically-minded, and pluralist instincts have long made us a respected ally. My hope is that their airports are re-opened before Barzani leaves for Downing Street.
This article by APPG Secretary Gary Kent is in a personal capacity