Kurdistan is like a cul de sac that you don’t visit by accident, a sympathetic MP said about the reduced salience of the Kurds as British politics is absorbed and bewildered by many bigger and more troubling problems.
Foremost is Brexit, but there’s also a growing realization about the Russian peril following a possible Moscow-backed assassination attempt with a toxic substance in England. There’s also frequent confusion between the different Kurdistans – while Afrin is clearly more kinetic, there are many more Turkish Kurds with electoral weight in north London. The Iraqi Kurdish plight is also inadvertently obscured by the notion that relations between the Kurdistan Region and Baghdad are better than in reality.
This is the way of the world in Westminster as issues ebb and flow. But all-party parliamentary group (APPG) members have maintained a barrage of motions, questions, meetings, and articles seeking to keep Kurdistan on the agenda in these dark days.
The latest Commons motion, sponsored by APPG vice-chair Mary Glindon MP, expresses shock at the Iraqi decision to unilaterally reduce the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)’s budget share. The motion says the 17 percent requested by the KRG was based on population, although there has been no census since 1987 in Iraq, and recognizes the damage inflicted on the Kurds by previous dictatorships, including the genocide of nearly 200,000 people, the destruction of thousands of villages, and the connected destruction of its once powerful agricultural sector.
It also highlights Baghdad’s failure since 2003 to pay the Peshmerga, its complete funding cut in 2014, its refusal to refund KRG costs in looking after displaced people who fled from Daesh (ISIS), and considerable arrears by Baghdad.
It damns this latest act of collective punishment that augurs badly for a more generous and statesmanlike approach that could encourage the Kurds to feel that they are truly equals in Iraq, and urges the UK government to increase its pressure on Baghdad to reverse these regressive changes.
Questions keep the issue alight. Shadow Minister for Peace Fabian Hamilton asked the Foreign Office what representations have been made to the government of Iraq on the reopening of Kurdistani airports to international passenger flights. Middle East Minister Alistair Burt replied that the UK urges Baghdad and Erbil to resolve their differences at every opportunity and has raised it with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. Another motion will mark the 30th anniversary of the Halabja gas attack and Anfal genocide, which will be marked with a rally in parliament later this week.
And there was an important Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) report on Kurdish aspirations, which attracted little attention but whose moderate observations and recommendations challenge the Foreign Office analysis. Time may eventually change the balance of forces and, I hope, the opinions of policy-makers and diplomats.
Iraq is neither safe nor united. The country was long bound together by brute force and then by a decent consensus of federalism after 2003 – but one with which Arab Iraq was uncomfortable. Former Prime Minister of Iraq Nouri al-Maliki and his successor Abadi have corroded, neglected and destroyed this with the aim of rebuilding a strong Arab state, although one that is over-influenced by Iran. This is, I think, a path that will wreck Iraq, while needlessly impairing Kurdistan will further destabilize the country. Managing the process for reconstitution may become the priority for those concerned for peace.
In any case, Abadi may not win in May. Whenever government is formed, the condition of Basra remains poor and its people also resent the dominance of Baghdad. Many Sunnis have yet to settle back and if they are treated as badly as the Kurds may again rebel. Daesh has been trounced in conventional warfare or astutely faded from the fight but remains potent, as we see with the degenerating security situation in Kirkuk where there were 80 attacks in recent weeks. The exodus of 200,000 Kurds from Kirkuk and other disputed territories speaks volumes.
Baghdad has employed brute force and cat and mouse tactics to humiliate the Kurds, but can they run Iraq effectively? Ben Van Heuvelen of the Iraq Oil Report says the International Monetary Fund (IMF) objects to Iraq slashing transfers to the KRG, which could also endanger Baghdad borrowing on international markets.
He quotes an IMF official saying the “[Iraqi] budget is not satisfactory because we think it’s not enough to maintain macroeconomic stability in Kurdistan, which is an important region of Iraq.” Iraq wants Kurdish oil revenues but resents the means successfully employed to start the new energy sector.
This highlights the role of hard-headed economics and confidence in squaring various circles rather than capricious power based on a wing and a prayer or, indeed, the abuse of American Abrams tanks. Iraq is weaker and the Kurds are stronger than it seems at first glance but it will take time for the Kurds to win back support from countries that have been diverted down their own all-consuming paths.
Internal reform in Kurdistan remains the key and that means, for instance, support for private sector efforts to increase agriculture as a precious resource and for greater self-sufficiency, employment, and revenues. Such prospects can be examined when the APPG sends its next delegation to Kurdistan in the near future. And the group could also audit Kurdish needs for practical assistance given the useful FAC recommendation 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.
But it is also time to better combine the efforts of APPG-type groups and others in countries as varied as America, Canada, Australia and Europe. I am, therefore, establishing a new global friendship network that digitally connects friends of the Kurdistan Region and can come together online and physically every now and then. It’s called Kurdistan Region Matters. Anyone interested can contact me at the address below.
My view is that friends should back the principle of Kurdistani independence given the likely unwillingness of a fictional and failed Iraq ever to accommodate the Kurds in a federal settlement. I’d be happy if Iraq can prove that wrong. There is only so much that solidarity can do but keeping faith with the Kurds is the least we should do as they make their way out of the hopefully temporary cul de sac and back into the mainstream of global affection and aid.
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.