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Fashion, Solidarity and Reform in the Anglo-Kurdish Relationship

06/11/2014 11:14 GMT | Updated 05/01/2015 10:59 GMT

The Daish crisis has catapulted the Kurds into the popular imagination in the west and the minds of more and more British parliamentarians. A small cultural example of the former was the decision of a clothes maker to model a fashion outfit on fatigues worn by female Kurdish fighters in Rojava. Unfortunately, some Kurds protested about this and the chain apologised. I think that Kurds should take comfort from westerners wearing jillikurdi as a sign of solidarity with the Kurdish struggle. A country's "brand" can be positively changed in this way. Look at South Korea in the wake of Gangnam Style.

MPs, many of whom once struggled to place Kurdistan on a map, are better informed and understand that Kurds are efficient allies in the common fight against Daish. This is eroding the deep resistance to involvement in Iraq, which came to be defined as a disaster of the first magnitude, and maybe Syria.

Sadly, the Labour Leader, Ed Miliband, who opposed the 2003 war from his perch in Harvard, has resisted further involvement, which led to last year's defeat of the British Government's modest proposal to punish Assad for using chemical weapons. Miliband backed airstrikes in Iraq but, along with some Conservative MPs, illogically vetoed British involvement in airstrikes in Syria although the border is nominal and Daish can hot-foot it there. Labour party activists are seeking to change this policy.

Bipartisan parliamentary select committees also come into their own in dispassionately scrutinising government actions and suggesting what British policy should be. The Defence Committee is investigating the Daish threat in Iraq and Syria. The Foreign Affairs Committee is in the last phase of its long inquiry into UK Government policy on the Kurdistan Region. Some members visited Baghdad, Erbil and Slemani last week and their report could be issued within months.

The report could intelligently examine the transformed political context, the long-running dispute between Baghdad and Erbil and make useful comments on key Kurdish demands to resolve the impasse. It could question the One Iraq policy which may yet mean stalling moves to Kurdish independence, should Baghdad finally prove that it is incapable or unwilling to do a deal with the Kurds. The urgent need for humanitarian aid and arms could also be highlighted but its remit is longer-term policy on the Kurdistan Region.

Some indications of the thinking of members of the Foreign Affairs Committee were aired in Commons questions last week when MPs asked the Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, who was in Kurdistan a fortnight ago, to assess the effectiveness of UK military strikes in Iraq.

Hammond reported that air strikes had halted Daish advances but cannot alone roll back Daish which requires an inclusive and unified Iraqi response. Sandra Osborne, who was in Kurdistan with the Committee, cited "ongoing disputes between Irbil and Baghdad, which may well have a negative effect on the achievement of that aim" but Hammond said his visit had convinced him that "the mood music between Irbil and Baghdad is much better now than it has been for months, probably years," with a serious discussion about oil revenues, which made him "optimistic." Time will tell.

Ann Clwyd, who also visited Kurdistan, praised the brave Peshmerga but said their message was more weapons, please. The Committee Chair, Sir Richard Ottaway stressed that the Peshmerga are "defending hundreds of miles of frontier with just rifles, and what they desperately need is equipment, equipment and equipment." Hammond replied that the British Government's security envoy to the KRG is assessing the needs and abilities of the Peshmerga, but that the UK is "constantly open to suggestions from the Peshmerga about any additional requirements..."

Strong Kurdish messages are increasingly amplified in Britain with Kurds seen as the doughty underdog that can increase pluralism in the Middle East. But this is not a blank cheque. The increased focus also includes negative aspects such as Female Genital Mutilation, cited in all-party group reports, and which has been reduced thanks to good political and civil leadership.

Ann Clwyd raised another equality issue. Given, she told the Commons, that "we are working closely with the Kurds at the moment, may we also ask for equal treatment of men and women in Kurdistan? I was shocked to find that women are still put in prison for adultery in Kurdistan, but men are not. That cannot be right." Her view was endorsed by former Foreign Secretary William Hague.

True partnership takes the rough with the smooth. Friends are candid with each other and can learn from each other. It is a sign of a very healthy relationship between the Kurds and the British and bolsters reform in Kurdistan.