Originally published on 20th June, we republish this piece today given recent events in Iraq.
Alistair Burt is MP for North East Bedfordshire, a former Foreign Office Minister with responsibility for the Middle East and a Vice-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq.
As Britain’s Minister for the Middle East, I twice visited the Kurdistan Region in Iraq but flying in and out of its capital, Erbil, for back-to-back ministerial meetings takes you from one office to another. Returning as a backbencher on a recent all-party delegation enabled me to see the bigger picture of a region in rapid transition and one that could do much to help resolve the current crisis in Mosul.
My official visits were confined to Erbil which, by all accounts, is a fast-changing and increasingly comfortable and cosmopolitan city. Most people would assume that Kurdistan is hot, dry and dusty. But between the bustling cities are vast, verdant and arable plains between rivers, waterfalls, canyons and snow-capped mountains: a new ski resort has recently opened.
The historic basis of Kurdish society was its villages, but thousands were destroyed by Saddam. Many were attacked with chemical weapons. The single biggest chemical weapons attack in history was inflicted in 1988 on Halabja, where thousands died instantly and many more were injured in body and in mind.
We drove long and winding roads through the mountains to visit Balisan, the first village attacked with chemical weapons. Village elders convened a chat with chai to describe the attack. A Kurdish woman told us that she attended the trial of Saddam to tell him to his face what his troops had done. He had no answers or shame.
The Kurds cannot forget the past and need to ensure that the world remembers. Last year, they made the case for formally recognising that what Saddam inflicted on them was genocide. The British Parliament did so. As the responsible Minister, I had to tell my fellow MPs in that debate that the government couldn’t do this because of a long-standing policy that such decisions are best taken judicially rather than politically.
That doesn’t mean we ignore the enormity of the injustice. I suggested and my successor, Hugh Robertson, agreed that the British Government formally join the recent annual commemoration of the genocide, as I am sure it will from now on.
Acknowledging the past helps the Kurds to build their future, and not just for themselves. Kurdish history and geography give it a potentially vital role in the Middle East. The Kurdistan Region is at the cross-roads of the Shia-Sunni conflict, yet remains outside of it and is neutral. It is a majority Muslim country, but with a successful history of peaceful co-existence with Christians and people of other faiths and nationalities. This is why so many see it as sanctuary.
The world should be deeply impressed by the successful efforts to turn Turkey from a foe into a friend. That it is based on commerce, and Turkey’s need for Kurdish oil and gas supplies on its doorstep means makes it more durable.
Kurdish energy, which has only come online in recent years, can also become part of a benign equation. Its energy revenues can drive a vast programme of new infrastructure and better public services, as well as diversifying its economy so it is not dangerously reliant on one source of income. Kurdish energy can allow Turkey to become a hub, and make the supply of energy more diverse and secure to Europe and the UK. We can also reduce our dependence on Russia. It can also lift the economic hopes of Turkish Kurds and help consolidate the peace process in Turkey.
The rapprochement with Turkey took time and courage. I also hope that the current rift between the Kurds and some in Baghdad will be healed. The worrying and puzzling decision by the Iraqi Prime Minister to unilaterally and arbitrarily cut federal budget payments, which was never done even by Saddam, is unacceptable and should be reversed.
The Kurds say that the recent first sale of oil via the pipeline to Turkey is allowed under the Iraqi constitution, and are ready to engage in negotiating a reliable and transparent settlement for exporting oil and sharing the revenues, with 83 per cent going to Baghdad. A negotiated settlement should recognise that success for Kurdistan is success for Iraq as a whole. Attempts to punish Kurdistan are entirely counter-productive. Active American and wider diplomacy is urgently needed before this needless dispute becomes entrenched and the Kurds decide that their options within Iraq are futile.
Britain is a partner of choice for the Kurds – I know that English is the unofficial second language there – and more needs to be done to ensure that we maximise our cultural and commercial connections for mutual benefit. The Commons Foreign Affairs Committee is currently examining UK relations with the Kurdistan Region, which is keen to overcome decades of isolation. I hope that their report convinces more British companies and public institutions that they are very welcome in Kurdistan, as it overcomes a tragic past and makes a positive contribution for its own people, the rest of Iraq and indeed the wider Middle East and world.
The urgent priority is to help Kurdistan cope with the influx of refugees from Mosul and for Kurdish forces to be supported in overcoming the scourge of ISIS. These jihadists have exploited differences between Shia, Sunnis and Kurds within Iraq. Now is the time to heal those wounds and that means just treatment for the most successful part of Iraq, its Kurdistan Region.