Gary Kent is the Secretary of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Kurdistan Region. He writes in a personal capacity.
That the airports in the Kurdistan Region, lifelines for our valiant and valuable ally in the fight against Daesh, have been blockaded by Baghdad for nearly five months is an under-reported and little known scandal that should shame Baghdad – and us for not being more forthcoming about its injustice.
Kurds who want to travel abroad for medical, family or commercial reasons can drive to Turkish airports or take internal flights via Baghdad. However, many of the consider the Iraqi capital unsafe and cannot afford the extra costs and time, as do foreigners who have to wait longer for visas (previously available on arrival in Kurdistan) and also resent the extra expense. Kurdistan has become a near no-fly zone, and this is crippling its economy.
That the needless violent reaction by Baghdad to the Kurdistani referendum last September also heavily relied on Iranian-backed and sectarian Shia militia, using advanced American Abrams tank and other kit, should be seen as a major blow to UK and Western ambitions to prevent Iran from gaining further expanding its influence in the Middle East. With Kurdistan diminished and weak, the notorious Al Quds commander, Qasem Solemaini, can more easily take his expeditionary forces from Tehran to the Mediterranean.
The blockade and other measures aim to squeeze the Kurds in acts of collective punishment. (Furthermore, Baghdad’s actions drove the Kurds to seek independence – a quest which was endorsed by a decisive 93 per cent of the people on a 72 per cent turnout in last year’s peaceful referendum. Sectarian centralisation was also a major driver of Sunni radicalisation, and encouraged many to embrace Daesh as preferable to Shia rule from Baghdad. The latter’s continuing strong-arm tactics could yet sustain Sunni extremism and Kurdistani disenchantment.
That none of this was an inevitable or necessary let alone constitutional reaction by Baghdad was camouflaged by its coinciding with the much more controversial referendum in Catalonia which dominated the headlines and allowed Baghdad to get away with it – with no protests from the international community.
Bringing this monstrous treatment of the Kurds to an end may be helped by a new diplomatically phrased but still damning report of Baghdad and the FCO from the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC), chaired by Tom Tugendhat.
The report observes that “many Kurds feel imprisoned in a country that they see as not implementing its commitments of equality to them. The FCO must therefore press for these commitments to be fulfilled. The FCO should press the government of Iraq to lift the restrictions placed on the Kurdistan Region of Iraq after the referendum,” and recognises that “the overwhelming vote in favour of independence was amanifestation of deep frustration and dissatisfaction with the Kurdistan Region of Iraq’s place in Iraq,”
The report acknowledges that these restrictions and the role played by Shia militias in confronting the Kurds “are only likely to encourage the Kurds on the path to departure rather than integration…the Committee felt that the FCO did not adequately address these issues. The FCO should call for these restrictions to be lifted, and not shy away from giving a view on these militias’ activities and their connections with Iran.”
The report argues that the UK should boost efforts to resolve these issues by offering itself “alongside international partners in an enhanced role of facilitating dialogue, and should secure the backing and support of the wider international community to play such a role.”
The FAC does not shy away from recognising internal Kurdish problems, and cites “clear signs of corruption, and the possibility that democracy is being curtailed,” about which the FCO had little to say.
It tacitly recognises the parlous position of the Kurdish Regional Government by recommending 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.” In 25 visits to Kurdistan since 2006, ministers and civil society leaders have often told me that our political engagement is most vital.
The FAC’s advocacy of enhanced dialogue, just short of mediation, can embolden a new approach to a dilemma in international relations and a perennial problem faced by the Kurds – a near nation and a people with the right to self-determination, but in a situation whereby realpolitik places the priority on the rights of the sovereign entity. If the UK and others prefer the Kurds remain in Iraq, they need to ensure it is not a prison.
The Kurds have survived worse than this latest outrageous suffocation of their society, and will bounce back as and when their enemies are weaker, and if they use the interregnum to overcome needless divisions. They have so far checked Baghdad to some degree, while the latter’s divisions and belated international pressure have relaxed its original intention, in my view, of kneecapping the Kurdistan Region as a recognised autonomous entity within the Iraqi constitution.
Two cheers to the FAC for highlighting the Kurdistani plight and making welcome recommendations that would ease Kurdistan’s isolation and increase chances of a successful resolution of differences with Baghdad – but flunking dilemmas in international relations doctrine that have hurt the Kurds.