“Many Kurds feel imprisoned in a country that they see as not implementing its commitments of equality to them. The FCO [Foreign and Commonwealth Office] must therefore (my emphasis) press for these commitments to be fulfilled. The FCO should press the government of Iraq to lift the restrictions placed on the Kurdistan Region of Iraq after the referendum” and “relations between Baghdad and the KRI are now at an historic low, and the risk of fighting was described to us as being high.”
These observations are made in the report of the five month long inquiry by the influential Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) into Kurdish aspirations and the interests of the UK. The cross-party report also analyses the situation in Syria and Turkey, where it says “the FCO’s view is currently incoherent,” and which deserves separate attention.
On the Kurdistan Region, the report further observes that “the overwhelming vote in favour of independence was a manifestation of deep frustration and dissatisfaction with the KRI’s place in Iraq,” and that restrictions imposed by Baghdad “will inevitably be seen as punitive, and collectively so.” It says when these restrictions are combined with the role of the Shia militias connected with Iran in confronting the Kurds they “are only likely to encourage the Kurds on the path to departure rather than integration.”
It makes several recommendations that, if implemented by the British government, could boost the UK’s role in defending and advancing the interests of the Kurds. This is also seen as a British interest and the report quotes UK Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, who told the FAC that “we owe a great debt to the Peshmerga for their bravery and sacrifice. What they are doing is on behalf of all of us. That is why instinctively we are so supportive of the Kurds and their aspirations—the KRG.”
The FAC accepts the ministerial view that the UK cannot mediate on a sovereign matter but concludes that “The FCO should offer itself alongside international partners in an enhanced role of facilitating dialogue, and should secure the backing and support of the wider international community to play such a role,” given that “different interpretations of the constitution are raising tensions and risking conflict.”
The report caveats this with “if desired” by Baghdad but says it would be “an offer from a sincere and concerned ally that has a long history of close ties and cooperation with both sides and a shared interest in preventing conflict. The FCO should also secure the backing and support of the wider international community to play such a role.”
The report highlights Middle East Minister Alistair Burt’s point about the UK using its diplomatic influence, “as we have been trying to in the region for some time, to point to those areas where conflict might arise, and to offer advice about how conflict might be scaled back and about institution building, non-sectarianism and things that can be done to prevent communities feeling excluded or being pushed towards an area of conflict […]. In future, I think that that will be a more important role in the region for the United Kingdom than anything else.”
The report says disputes in the different Kurdistans can only be resolved locally but urges the FCO to “support meaningful political participation and representation for Kurds, as well as cultural recognition, equal rights, and economic opportunities for them, underpinned by national constitutions and achieved through negotiation, as a means of fulfilling Kurdish aspirations. It is not in the UK’s interests for any state to deny Kurdish identity through law or force. It is likewise not in the UK’s interests for Kurdish groups to seek their goals through violence or unilateral moves.”
The MPs also make a useful suggestion that the UK “should supply and encourage others to provide capacity-building courses and training that equip KRI policy-makers and others with the greater ability to promote political reform and economic reform and diversification.”
The MPs endorse the FCO’s long-standing One Iraq approach but complain that the FCO has not adequately addressed the behaviour of Baghdad and internal Kurdish problems. It asks the FCO to “not shy away” but set out assessments of the role of Shia militias in retaking disputed territories such as Kirkuk, whether reports of crimes being committed by them are credible, and how much Iran supports, or controls, these militias. Given that the role of the Shia militias and Iran was obscured in and after the attack on Kirkuk, this could usefully redress the balance of blame for the Iraqi reaction to the peaceful referendum.
The report also says “The FCO must be prepared to criticise both Baghdad and the Iraqi Kurds when criticism is due,” and urges the FCO to explain its view of and response to what it describes as corruption and the monopolisation of power or curtailment of democracy in Kurdistan. Corruption, it adds, is a serious problem in Iraq in general, and risks impeding reconstruction.
The report argues that such criticism should be part of an effort to achieve not only a dialogue between leaders, but a positive interaction between people on both sides to turn—as far as possible—mutual suspicion into a shared belief that they can all benefit from being diverse regions of a united country.
My written evidence argued that the referendum did not justify Iraqi violence but the Iraqi violence justifies eventual independence. This is not on the agenda for now but it would have been better if the FAC had examined tensions between self-determination and supporting the status quo.
After all, the UK put the Kurds in Iraq in the first place and against their will and they have suffered ever since apart from one decade after the overthrow of Saddam. I have previously praised the Estonian Parliament’s motion on the Erbil-Baghdad dispute which affirms that “…it respects the territorial integrity of the Republic of Iraq, as long as preserving it will not bring along violent suppression of the human and political rights of the Kurdish minority in Iraq.” That could have been usefully recognised by the FAC.
There is also much “he said, she said” in surveying the evidence conflicting from bodies as varied as the KRG, the Iraqi Embassy, the KDP, and Gorran. Oddest was the noted contrast between Kurds denouncing the closure of the airports as a blockade while the FCO dispassionately said Baghdad had “closed Kurdish airspace to inbound and outbound international flights”. Our friends, the Kurds, deserve more passion and calling a spade a spade but despite that there is enough in the report to expose the shameful treatment of the Kurds to a wider audience.
The FAC report is less substantial than the one released by a previous FAC in 2015, but that took a year, involved visits to Iraq and Kurdistan, and focused exclusively on UK-KRG relations, while this was involved no visits, and also examined other Kurdistans.
The FAC report can only recommend actions to the Government, which will respond within two months. It won’t automatically change British policy or Baghdad’s bullying but at least shows they are being watched carefully. The Kurds currently in Iraq can take criticism on the chin and it should prompt continuing and thorough economic and political reform, but Baghdad’s vindictive and punitive imprisonment of Kurds cannot be evaded.
* The full report is at https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/foreign-affairs-committee/news-parliament-2017/kurdish-aspirations-report-published-17-19/
Gary Kent writes in a personal capacity.