The House of Commons will discuss UK relations with the Kurdistan Region in a 90 minute debate on today led by Conservative MP Jason McCartney, who served as an RAF officer policing John Major’s no-fly zone in the 1990s. It saved the Kurds from extinction at the hands of Saddam Hussein.
No wonder that they are deeply pro-British and that the no-fly zone and the later liberation of Iraq in 2003 have eroded critical memories of British involvement in Kurdistan around the formation of Iraq nearly a century ago – around the same time as Ireland secured its independence
The debate will focus on a raft of practical measures to deepen and widen the commercial and cultural link between the Kurdistan Region and the UK. There is a strong connection between Northern Ireland and the Kurdistan Region which has been visited by the Trade Minister Arlene Foster.
Measures to boost two-way traffic with Kurdistan are outlined in the all-party parliamentary group report of its latest delegation (drafted by yours truly).
But my guess is that part of the discussion here – as it so often does elsewhere – will focus on whether or not Kurdistan as a whole or Iraqi Kurdistan in particular could or should become independent. Having been involved in Irish issues since the 1980s, I tend to see comparisons between Northern Ireland and Northern Iraq.
Some years back I was taken to task for telling the New Statesman that Irish unity was a pipe dream – I stick to that but have no dogmatic interest either way as long as it is achieved by peaceful methods and on the basis of consent.
My concern with some of the British Left’s emphasis on Irish unity at the time is that it was more fiercely held than by much of the Irish left. It had become an emotional talisman. It is also always easier to prognosticate on solutions from afar, even just across the Irish Sea and despite IRA bombs in Britain.
Likewise with the Kurds, where many people begin the conversation by asking about independence but it is not the dominating question.
My best guess is that it is so long since the Kurds failed to achieve a single nation-state in what are now Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria that the moment for the Greater Kurdistan has passed. Never say never, for sure, but the trajectory of each constituent part of this putative nation has diverged considerably, although the Internet and satellite broadcasting make virtual nations more possible.
The emphasis of the Kurdish parties in Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran is on equality within the current borders. The possibility of an independent Iraqi Kurdistan is, however, made more feasible by its large and new found oil and gas wealth.
But it remains extremely difficult once you look at the map and see that it is entirely landlocked.
If it decided to go its own way but failed to win the support of at least one neighbour, it could find itself doomed to autarky without imports, exports, passports and airports.
In some ways, independence would be wonderful for the Iraqi Kurds but also take away a dynamic part of Iraq to the detriment of the country as a whole.
If you take the belligerent statements emanating from Baghdad at face value, you could conclude that some in Baghdad don’t want the Kurds to stay or want to crack down on them – hopefully not with the same genocidal force as Saddam.
But much of the ballistic blister is to do with the parliamentary elections in April. The bitter battle of words concerns the decision by the Kurds to use new pipelines to export oil to Turkey, which is
keen on reliable and cheap supplies to fund its fast growth. It gets a bit arcane at this point but the issue is how the revenues are paid to Baghdad and shared. The Kurds are entitled to 17% of all revenues but are constantly short-changed. They could keep 17% and give the rest to Baghdad which cuts a string.
The Kurds of Iraq may one day need to or decide to plump for independence and without causing war or poverty. But that day has not yet come and may never come.
In the meantime, interdependence is the name of the game – both with Turkey and with the rest of Iraq. I certainly hope that they get a fair shake of the dice from Baghdad whose default centralisation can be softened by the Kurds but also the Sunnis and parts of the Shia south such as Basra.
For now, the important issue is boosting all sorts of links between the Kurdistan Region and the outside world so that they can better overcome the legacy of genocide, dictatorship and economic backwardness.
The full report of the all-party group’s delegation is here
Gary Kent, formerly an organiser of the Peace Train Organisation in London, is the Director of the APPG on the Kurdistan Region and writes in a personal capacity.
Gary Kent is a graduate of international relations. After spells in management in British Rail and the Co-Op he began work in parliament in 1987 where he was active for two decades on Anglo-Irish peace activity against terrorism and now as secretary of the all-party parliamentary group on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq, which he has visited 27 times since 2006. He used to be a columnist for Fortnight Magazine and writes a regular column for the Kurdish Rudaw outlet and many other publications.