Twenty two years ago, many thousands of Iraqi Kurds fled to the mountains to escape the wrath of Saddam Hussein. Some of the stories of survival take your breath away. One father and his two daughters climbed a high mountain where their dilemma was simple: stay and freeze or return and die. The only way out was down the other side, not a sheer drop but a long fall, and escape into Iran.
The father tied himself to his daughters – they jumped and survived. Others hadn’t been so lucky. One dead woman at the bottom of the mountain was still standing and the father had to tell his young daughter that the lady would catch them up later.
The plight of the Kurds found a warm public reaction here. The MP I then worked for was asked for help by a British woman collecting blankets and food. Many others did similar things. We were able to persuade the Iranians to send a 747 to collect the material.
The public outrage led to Prime Minister John Major taking the lead in establishing a no-fly zone over the safe haven of Iraqi Kurdistan. It was a triumph for humanitarian intervention which was not, as it happened, sanctioned by the UN. It saved the Kurds.
After Saddam was overthrown, Iraqi Kurdistan became a recognised and largely autonomous region of Iraq. It has always been resource rich but its oil, gas and minerals were completely neglected by Saddam who conducted genocide against the Kurds. It was only from 2007 that the Kurdistan Region managed to create an energy sector from scratch.
It is now the oil exploration capital of the world. Its huge wealth could fund massive economic growth which has long been running at about ten percent a year. Its plentiful oil and gas reserves are the basis of a new economic and political partnership with an old foe, Turkey, which needs secure supplies from its neighbour.
The speed of the rapprochement between the Iraqi Kurds and Turkey has been astonishing and has allowed Kurdish leaders to help facilitate the peace process between Turkey and the PKK. Their war has exacted a huge toll in Turkey over the last 30 years – up to 40,000 killed on both sides and a cost of many billions of dollars. Peace could substantially improve the position of the Kurds in Turkey.
Some are now asking the wrong question of this Kurdish renaissance. They wonder whether a new country encompassing the Kurds of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria is possible.
It may be desirable but it is probably not feasible to think that Iran and Turkey would contemplate their own dismemberment without bloodshed. Kurdish leaders in Turkey, Iran and Syria all say that they seek autonomy, cultural rights or something similar to the autonomy of Iraqi Kurdistan.
The borders will probably stay, although not if Syria splits. And it is not impossible to envisage that Iraqi Kurdistan could achieve independence from Baghdad, which may not have the means or the will to resist.
Having discussed this with Kurdish leaders, I don’t detect an active plan to seek independence. In my opinion, independence would only be possible with the support of Turkey and the USA, given that Iraqi Kurdistan is landlocked. My best guess is that they will settle for a functioning federalism and economic independence so that they are no longer held back by bureaucrats in Baghdad.
However, a virtual Greater Kurdistan is on the cards, thanks to the Internet and satellite television and despite different dialects and differences based on a century of varied experiences in four countries.
Next month, several hundred Kurdish leaders from forty parties in all four countries will assemble in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, for an historic Kurdish national conference.
It aims to advance political, economic and cultural visions for Kurds in those countries, including the pressing position of the Syrian Kurds, whose large numbers have recently been swollen by a river of refugees to the safe haven of Iraqi Kurdistan.
History is repeating itself. This time, the Kurds have much more power to change things for themselves but these are still limited. This time, few people in the UK know or are moved by what is happening to the Kurds, and indeed others, in Syria. A united Kurdish voice can help change that but the international community should not leave the Kurds, and all Syrians, high and dry this time.
Gary Kent is Director of the all-party parliamentary group on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq and writes in a personal capacity
* The Barzani school project is raising funds to build cabins in association with the Phoenix Resource Centre, a British environmental charity. Funds can be sent to the Syrian Refugees Account: sort code 55-70-37; account number 811 978 53.