Head of Kurdistan’s foreign relations, Falah Mustafa (centre), welcomes members of the UK’s all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on Kurdistan, including Jack Lopresti (on Mustafa’s right) in November 2016. Photo: KRG
Earlier this week, Conservative MP Jack Lopresti was elected chairman of the UK’s all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on Kurdistan.
Serving in the British Army before entering politics, Lopresti did a tour in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province in 2008-9. Through his military career, he learned about the Kurdish Peshmerga, giving him an introduction to Kurdistan.
Lopresti takes the leadership of the APPG as the Kurdistan Region prepares for a historic referendum on independence. He said he sympathizes with the Kurdish position: Negotiations with Baghdad “may take some time but I fully understand why the Kurds feel that federalism has failed and their belief that it cannot be revived.”
The UK parliament will hold a debate on Kurdistan on July 4, the first since 2014, and the APPG hopes to send observers to monitor the referendum in September and elections in November.
Although he recognizes that Kurdistan faces difficulties, primarily political and economic problems, Lopresti firmly believes that “Kurdistan is a strong ally of the West” and he wants to nurture relations between his government and Kurds.
Rudaw: You tweeted after you had been elected chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Kurdistan that this is "a cause close to my heart." What do you mean by that?
Jack Lopresti: I have been aware of the Kurds in Iraq for some time and although I served in Afghanistan I have met many soldiers who served in Iraq and knew something positive about Kurdistan. I am very proud that Sir John Major initiated the no-fly zone and safe haven in 1991 and that one of my predecessors as APPG Chairman, Jason McCartney, was part of the RAF force implementing the policy.
I have met many MPs who have visited the Kurdistan Region in the last few years and was then able to visit myself on two occasions in 2015 and 2016. I have also talked a great deal with the KRG [Kurdistan Regional Government] High Representative to the UK, Karwan Jamal Tahir, and learnt much from him.
On our jam-packed fact-finding missions I met the widest range of political leaders, visited the three main cities and was astonished by the beauty, hospitality and potential of the Kurdistan Region.
As a military man, I was especially struck by the bravery of the Peshmerga I met in Kirkuk and on the road to Mosul, where I visited
I fully understand why the Kurds feel that federalism has failed
the village of Bartella which had just been liberated. I also visited West Erbil Emergency Hospital to see Peshmerga and Iraqi Army soldiers who had been wounded in battle. I wanted to pay my respects to their contribution and strongly believe they were fighting in the interests of all our freedoms, security and the preservation of our way of life.
I think we owe them a debt of gratitude and have asked the former Prime Minister David Cameron and the current Prime Minister Theresa May to provide free beds at our specialist hospital in Birmingham for the most seriously wounded Peshmerga. It is the least we can do. I have yet to receive a positive answer but the APPG will continue to press this, as well as the need for heavy weapons.
You assume this position at a pivotal time in Kurdish history. What road would you like to see the UK government taking with respect to Kurdistan?
The British Government has made its formal view clear but it came as no surprise to me or the KRG. But it is clear that the referendum will proceed. I will table a cross-party Commons motion that supports the right of the Kurds to exercise their self-determination in the referendum. I know that this only provides a mandate for negotiating a new state and better forms of co-operation with Baghdad. I wish the Kurds all the best in this process. I would hope that the UK would use its political and diplomatic resources to encourage such an accommodation. It may take some time but I fully understand why the Kurds feel that federalism has failed and their belief that it cannot be revived.
Part of APPG's mandate is to encourage development of democratic institutions in the Kurdistan Region. What is your view of the current stalemate of the Kurdistan parliament? Could the APPG help to find a resolution to this problem?
If you are already doing so, can you detail some of the group's efforts? What is the best resolution to this problem?
The watchwords of our dozen delegations have been to see Kurdistan 'warts and all' and show 'tough love'
I have spoken in detail to the main parties and to the Speaker in Kurdistan. I am aware of the complexities that caused the crisis and I hope that they can be resolved as a matter of urgency. The APPG is not in a position to do more than argue that reactivating parliament would be welcomed by all friends of the Kurds and enable the referendum to proceed with a greater degree of unity. I have long thought that a major Kurdistani asset has been its decision to voluntarily embrace democracy in 1992, as well as providing security for religious minorities and a superlative security record against terrorism too.
Gorran could become the formal Opposition and that role, essential to vibrant democracies, could be cultivated by external assistance, if that is what it wants.
We also support the need to continue reforming the economy so that it is more diversified with a more powerful private sector. Agriculture, tourism and industry can provide more reliable revenues than oil and gas.
The watchwords of our dozen delegations have been to see Kurdistan 'warts and all' and show 'tough love.' We would not be good friends if we failed to highlight an economic model that sustains poor productivity and imperils its potential to increase the well-being of its people.
Kurdistani leaders welcome our approach because advice from trusted friends – they formally consider the British as 'a partner of choice' – helps bolster arguments for change. The President of the independent Middle East Research Institute put it very well in a briefing to us at the Commons. Dlawer al Alaldeen's message to Kurdistan's Western friends is 'you should help the Kurds become the partner you deserve.'
The Kurds have a wider role. The conditions that cultivated the Daesh death cult have yet to be resolved. Kurdistani leaders have repeatedly warned British MPs and the international community that failure to tackle the alienation of Sunnis could lead to the emergence of Daesh Mark 3. It will take huge efforts to reconcile Sunnis in Mosul, who have suffered three years of severe repression and brutality.
The Kurds in Iraq, with their longer experience of state-building and greater coherence, can make a major difference. They have maintained their integrity in their dealings with their neighbours and the rapprochement with Turkey is testament to their diplomatic skills. Before the rise of Daesh there were also encouraging signs of co-operation between neighbouring Sunni dominated provinces and the then economically dynamic Kurdistan Region, which exported spare electricity to them. This was despite Sunnis being a key
We hope to send observers to monitor the referendum in September and the elections in November
component of the genocidal actions of the Saddam Hussein regime.
Kurdistan is a strong ally of the West with the potential to be a powerful example to the rest of the Middle East. If it were to achieve statehood, it could be welcomed into international alliances such as NATO and the Commonwealth. My view is that Kurdistan and the West would also benefit from an American base in Kurdistan, and the dollarisation of the economy.
But the Kurds should get their act together, nurture a new patriotic work ethic and entrepreneuliasm, and refuse to be their own worst enemies in the dramatically changing geopolitics of the Middle East. And in return the Kurds deserve much more support from the UK and the West.
The APPG's mandate is limited to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, but it is not possible to completely separate Kurds in one country from those in Iran, Turkey, and Syria – there are direct and indirect knock-on effects between the four parts of greater Kurdistan. Does the APPG take any position on the situation of Kurds in Iran, Turkey, and Syria? Does your work with Kurds in the Kurdistan Region affect Kurds in other parts of greater Kurdistan?
The formal focus of the APPG is on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq. I know that the Kurds are connected by family and history but we cannot take a stand on the complexities of the other Kurdistans. There may be a virtual Kurdistan but it is certain there will be four distinct Kurdistans, just as there are many separate Arab nations.
Do you have any visits to Kurdistan planned?
We don't yet have firm plans but we hope to send observers to monitor the referendum in September and the elections in November. One possibility is that we stay longer in November and meet civil society organisations and examine the scale and future scope of the British commercial, cultural and political footprint in Kurdistan. The APPG has long argued for improved visa applications, direct flights, more trade and a good bilateral relationship. We will continue to argue for these even as Kurdistan is seeking statehood. A powerful argument for statehood is that it requires further reform and allows access to the international funds for development and capacity building that are not allowed to non-state actors but which are routinely available to strategic allies – and it is my firm belief that Kurdistan would be one of those.