For years, the starting point for many Kurds in assessing relations with the UK was Sykes-Picot, the agreement of 1916 between Britain and France that eventually resulted in the forcible inclusion of the Kurds into Iraq.
However, after decades of discrimination leading to genocide, the Kurdistan Region in Iraq is the only officially recognised autonomous region for Kurds and its status and rights are enshrined in the Iraqi constitution of 2005, albeit imperfectly, to say the least.
Two seminal events helped create that improved position and enhanced the place of the Kurdistan Region in UK foreign policy and public opinion. Both have also encouraged a much more positive reassessment of the British link to Kurdistan.
The first was Sir John Major’s decision in 1991 to persuade his American and French allies to support a safe haven and no-fly zone over much of Iraqi Kurdistan. This was in response to the grave danger of further genocide and under pressure from the outraged concerns of public and parliamentary opinion as we saw the misery in the mountains.
It took a great effort by Sir John Major to persuade America to support this military intervention. The American public was keen to see their troops returned after the successful liberation of Kuwait. It also technically infringed the sovereignty of Iraq, which sought to subvert it and fired on the Western jets that enforced it.
But the safe haven allowed millions to return from the mountains and rebuild an effectively autonomous near-state in initially inauspicious conditions. In 1992, Kurds voted for a new parliament in April and the first coalition cabinet was formed. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) was born.
The British and the Americans protected the Kurds for 12 years until the second event that transformed the safety and prospects of the Kurdistan Region – the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The demise of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship allowed the Kurds, who had long allied with Shia forces against Saddam, to rejoin Iraq on the condition that it be federal. Their allies had grudgingly agreed this before the invasion and it was translated into the 2005 constitution.
The first decade after 2003 is often referred to as a golden one. The KRG was able to build a new oil and gas sector from scratch, boost living standards, open new universities, improve infrastructure such as a new airport – the old one was a small collection of military huts – and open several High Representations. I started working with the one in London, then headed by Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman in 2005.
The UK joined the US and other status quo powers in not supporting the referendum on the principle of independence. But they argue for a strong KRG within Iraq.
The cause of the Kurds in Iraq benefitted considerably from Sir John Major’s radical decision to modify the rules of international relations. There is also no doubt that the Kurdistani contribution after 2003 to stabilising Iraq, taking the Iraqi presidency on three occasions so far, defeating Daesh, defying extremism, protecting minorities, and upholding moderate religious practice and women’s rights have all enhanced its importance in Western foreign policies.
Those who want a more reliable relationship with Baghdad and correct relations with other neighbours have to build their own capacity and reform and diversify their economy so it is resilient and sustainable. But they can do so in partnership with countries such as the UK that recognise the importance of that change for mutual interests and benefits.
The outreach work of the KRG, the contribution of the diaspora – there are three Kurdish barbers in my own neighbourhood – and the support of friendship groups like the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) all help keep Kurdish issues and interests in the spotlight. Our delegations to Kurdistan and regular debates in parliament also help keep the concerns of our friends on an agenda that is inevitably composed of so many competing demands.
But President Nechirvan Barzani’s official visit to the UK is a great opportunity to focus minds on further advancing that established and strong relationship on security, commercial, and political issues.
Gary Kent is the Secretary of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq and writes in a personal capacity. This article first appeared in Rudaw.