An eloquent student accused Britain of betraying the Kurds twice in a century at a packed meeting where I was recently a panelist on a hot evening in Erbil. I disagreed, but his tough questioning showed how Kurdistan’s youth is becoming more confident and assertive. On my first visit to a Kurdistani university in 2006 most students were unwilling to speak their minds.
As for the charges of British betrayal, one was a century old and the other last year. The student basically said the secret Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 imprisoned Kurds in Iraq. True – British and French imperialism acted in their own interests, but the key historical lesson is that Kurds proved weaker than those who successfully grabbed their destiny.
The new accusation that bookends the century-of-betrayal thesis is that Britain acquiesced in the violent Iraqi seizure of Kirkuk last October in exchange for an oil contract for British Petroleum (BP). The mundane truth is that BP and Baghdad agreed to resume work that had been suspended during the war against Daesh (ISIS).
Kurdistani leaders do not believe oil inspired British opposition to the referendum for eventual independence. I say their stance was honorable, but I remain critical of how the West handled it. That the peaceful referendum was not about immediate breakaway is true, but neighbors chose to see it as an imminent threat. The precise sequence of everyone’s mistakes, misunderstandings, miscalculations, and machinations will fill theses and books, including one by me perhaps.
Looming large, as a friend puts it, is that Kurdistan is a small landlocked country surrounded by sharks, or at least nations that hamper its development. And a small country that has survived discrimination, forcible resettlement, war, and genocide by successive Iraqi regimes for a century.
Dr Fuad Hussein, the Chief of Staff to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Presidency, a former Iraqi education minister, and a seasoned fighter for Kurdistani rights, who could well be the next Iraqi President, walked me through the struggles of previous generations.
The Kurds first struggled to freely speak their own language and then openly read it. Hussein spent his youth in the mountains where Peshmerga fighters received a copy of a Kurdistani newspaper every three months and, having studied it, made three carbon copies for their comrades. The student who confronted me no doubt posted his views on social media immediately.
Thanks to former British PM John Major’s initiative of the no fly zone in 1991 and then the US-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Kurdistan became an increasingly vibrant and official autonomous region in Iraq. Many of those freedoms have been reversed in recent months, but not as much as Iraq originally wanted.
Iraqi PM Haider al-Abadi exploited external opposition and internal division to present himself as a new Shia strongman to avenge the humiliation of Iraq at the hands of Daesh.
He immediately closed Kurdistani airports to the world and then seized the disputed province and city of Kirkuk, which was originally saved by the Kurds from Daesh when the Iraqi Army retreated in 2014.
KRG administration was the basis for military and political agreements between Erbil, Baghdad, and the international coalition, but this was out of necessity not desire, as was federalism for many in Baghdad. Whether disputed territories are under Iraqi or Kurdistani control, they remain disputed and the neglected constitution’s roadmap to finalizing their status should be applied.
But Abadi also sensed an opportunity to split the Kurdistan Region into weaker northern provinces with pliant local administrations and central control of its airports. This could have crushed Kurdistani aspirations for independence for a generation or more.
He failed. Rearguard resistance halted Iraqi Army and Shia militia incursions into undisputed Kurdistan, while countries that opposed the referendum rejected the dismantling of the KRG. President Emmanuel Macron of France, a nation with strong support for Kurdistan, broke the diplomatic blockade on Kurdistani leaders and encouraged Abadi to withdraw his forces and open the airports.
The violence used by Baghdad supposedly to uphold the Iraqi constitution defied the constitution itself. Kurdistan is meant to be part of a voluntary union, but the union was enforced by unconstitutionally using the army to settle internal conflicts. Almost 100 Peshmerga were killed by US-supplied tanks.
Kurdistan’s legitimate exercise of self-determination clearly shows what most Kurds want but that road is currently blocked.
Kurdistan’s people and leaders have shown sufficient resilience and leadership to survive and thrive again with international help. And there seems to be a new impetus for concerted internal reform and embracing robust pragmatism in using their weight in Baghdad to defend their interests.
This rhymes with the Western policy of a strong KRG within a unified Iraq and there is much countries such as the UK should do to strengthen a place that deeply respects religious pluralism, remains vital in resisting renewed Daesh-type extremism, and could help other Kurdistans make peace.
The UK has trained thousands of Peshmerga, which should be more efficient and unified as a state institution. The Kurdistani parliament is 26 years old but has yet to find a central role while their MPs want to set up an all-party group on the UK that can work with the APPG on the Kurdistan Region to focus on training MPs. And youth and student groups need help to make their views heard more prominently. Not that some need much prompting.
As for the student who put me on the spot – I think you’re mistaken about betrayal, but I well understand your anger. Referendum day was joyous but followed by a grim and failed attempt to suffocate the Kurds politically and economically. Kurdistan may be a small country in the often violent vortex of the Middle East, but its willingness to engage with the world, its deeply held principles of tolerance and pluralism, its democratic aspirations, and a proven ability to rise above its faults and legacy stand it in good stead.
No people is handed its future on a plate but has to make its own future with, I hope, many more friends in the UK and globally.
Gary Kent is the Secretary of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG). He writes this column for Rudaw in a personal capacity. The address for the all-party group is firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.