Can and Should Iraq Stay Together?

18/02/2015 10:36 GMT | Updated 19/04/2015 10:59 BST

Foreign affairs barely figures in the British election campaign. But the implosion of Iraq and the durability of the self-styled Islamic State (Isis) will be major headaches for new ministers in May. Their required reading should include recent and substantial reports from the foreign affairs and defence select committees, respectively on UK policy towards Kurdistan and the response to Isis.

My reading of the stark picture painted by these two reports is that Isis benefitted from two main policy errors. Firstly, the West didn't intervene sufficiently in Syria when it had the chance. The moderate opposition to Assad was marooned, and then supplanted by Isis. Secondly, America's departure from Iraq in December 2010 was not delayed as many hoped. The exit allowed what the foreign affairs report calls Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki's 'sectarian autocracy' to marginalise Kurds and alienate Sunnis. This helped discredit federalism and created fertile recruiting ground for Isis, now stronger across two weakened countries. Western public anger about the 2003 invasion of Iraq still limits necessary intervention.

Iraq lost its integrity under Maliki. Its army was humiliated by Isis and lost vast military arsenals to them. It can only defend itself with American and Iranian help, as well as Shia militias that make Isis look more palatable to many Sunnis. Many billions of state funds have also vanished, corruption is rife and public services are atrocious.

Falling oil prices make recovery even harder. One estimate is that with oil at $70 a barrel - and it is lower now - then Iraq has only 16 months of reserves to bridge the gap between revenues and expenditure on salaries and essential subsidies to the people.

The slump in oil prices is already having a major impact. Erbil, the Kurdish capital, and Baghdad recently agreed a confidence-building interim deal on oil exports and budget payments through Iraq's equivalent of the Barnett formula, which stipulates that the Kurds should receive 17% of Iraqi federal revenues. But Haider al-Abadi, the new Iraqi prime minister, now admits he cannot honour the promise, although negotiations continue. The Kurdistan Prime Minister, Nechirvan Barzani, says that the Kurds made a deal with a bankrupt country. The provisional detente on oil and budget payments between Baghdad and Erbil could unravel.

After an initial near catastrophe when Isis came close to Erbil, Iraqi Kurds are now seen as determined and efficient opponents of Isis. The Kurds have been emboldened by the recapture of lost territory and the huge psychological victory over Isis in Kobane, in Syria. But Iraqi Kurds are hobbled by shortages of heavy weapons, which have been withheld lest they later drive independence and in order to encourage the unification of the Peshmerga, some of whom are linked to the region's historic parties. The Kurds are also struggling with a massive influx of refugees, as well as the those budget shortfalls.

The defence committee concludes that Iraq's 'deep polarisation and structural weaknesses' have allowed Isis to become resilient, and may now mean that containment and suppression are more realistic than total elimination. Britain's military contribution, it says, has been 'strikingly modest,' and we should assist more as Bashar Warda, the (Chaldean) Archbishop of Erbil told me last week.

But a key issue, examined in the foreign affairs report, is whether the traditional 'One Iraq' policy helps or hinders? What is often called 'Iraqiness' has long been competitively defined by Sunnis, Shias and Kurds. Iraq has been a cold and dark place for each of them at different times. The hard truth is that Kurds and Sunnis will never allow themselves to be dominated by a Shia Baghdad. This raises some major questions over the future of Iraq. Should the Kurds and Baghdad negotiate a soft partition but unite against Isis? Would retaking and holding Mosul become more feasible if a post-Isis Sunnistan could join Erbil and Baghdad in a voluntary partnership?

The foreign affairs report breaks the taboo on such issues. It prefers a looser federation and recognises rational fears about unravelling borders. But it also acknowledges that Kurds are 'rational' in seeking independence, which it judges is a medium-term possibility that should be accepted and respected in certain conditions.

On returning from Kurdistan last month, London Major Boris Johnson rightly said that delicate questions about the break-up of Iraq are 'fundamentally questions for another day' compared to immediate solidarity with this 'oasis of democracy, tolerance, prosperity, openness and relative gender equality'.

The possibility of Iraqi Kurdistan achieving independence should not stop British ministers sending the artillery, tanks, helicopters, and heavy machine guns the Kurds desperately need to fight Isis - for all our sakes.