The Blog

Kurdish Questions in the Commons

Abiding by international norms is what most governments do unless and until those norms can be amended and Abadi should understand that without a truly fresh start, pro-Kurdish voices will become louder.

Nearly every day last week saw a major debate in the Commons on the emergency in Iraq and Syria, plus a packed meeting in Parliament attended by many Kurds from north, south, east and west with a distinguished range of speakers including former British Defence Secretary Liam Fox, and distinguished writer Patrick Cockburn. There was also a rally in central London organised by the Kurdish political parties in Britain. Discussion decamps to party conferences with KRG events over the next few weeks.

This engagement is bound to increase and intensify following the despicable murder by the "Islamic State" of British aid worker David Haines. The Kurdish-British MP Nadhim Zahawi rightly asks that no one posts the horrific film of the beheading. A coalition of Muslim clerics has asked the media, civic society and governments to refuse to "legitimise ludicrous caliphate fantasies" by using the self-description of the Islamic State, suggesting that "UnIslamic State (UIS)" would be better.

A growing theme is how to treat the KRG and Kurdish aspirations for real federalism, independence or confederation. There is great sensitivity about this given the need for an inclusive government in Baghdad that reaches out to the Kurds and the Sunnis and thereby increases its credibility as a military and political partner. On the other hand, the role of the Peshmerga is valued highly as what the Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond told the Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) is a "well motivated and reasonably led [force] but severely lacking in weapons and equipment." Prime Minister David Cameron also pledged that British soldiers could train one of its battalions.

Having first dispatched arms from other countries to the Peshmerga, the UK last week sent a gift of arms to the Kurds. As with all other aid and arms shipments, this had to first be flown to Baghdad to satisfy Baghdad's insistence on demonstrating its sovereignty. Questions are being raised about the efficiency of this and one MP, Mary Glindon, has suggested that such shipments go directly to Kurdistan's two international airports where they can be inspected by officials from Baghdad.

The Foreign Secretary clearly outlined the correct constitutional position that the Government of Baghdad is "the legally responsible entity" and that supplies of weapons and equipment as well as any future direct military activity would have to be "at the request of the Government of Iraq and with [its] full agreement."

The Prime Minister told Robert Halfon MP, who had praised Kurdistan as "the only beacon of democracy and the rule of law and the only place of religious tolerance in Iraq," that he very much admired "what Kurdistan has done to protect minorities and foster democracy" but added that Britain should support Kurdistan as part of our effort to build a pluralistic and democratic Iraq: "I think it is absolutely vital that we see it as part of that country."

None of that should be surprising or disappointing. Yet no one enthusiastically supports this formal position with several senior voices gently adding scepticism about the ability of the new government in Baghdad to fashion a deal that satisfies the Kurds, who have a decade of Baghdad's broken promises in mind and who have given Haider Abadi three months to prove them wrong.

The new Chairman of the Defence Select Committee, Rory Stewart, who recently visited Kurdistan with Zahawi, asked bluntly: "what possible reason do we have at the moment to believe that [the Baghdad] Government are inclusive" to which the ministerial answer was a diplomatic expression of hope.

The Conservative MP Steve Barclay noted the contrast between a bipartisan offer of devo-max to Scotland and the insistence on a unified Iraq despite the Kurdish state having its own Prime Minister, President and armed forces. The FAC Chair, Sir Richard Ottaway, talked about the eventual formation of Kurdistan, Sunnistan and Shi'astan. Stewart also urged a bigger diplomatic footprint in Kurdistan. Zahawi urged Abadi to embrace "greater local autonomy and a fair political settlement"

including "revenue sharing, a hydrocarbon law and a referendum on the disputed territories including, of course, Kirkuk" and said that "without such a settlement, however, a unified Iraq will be an impossibility."

Another FAC member, Mike Gapes, raised the possibility of "a comprehensive international conference in the region at some point to redraw the boundaries." Gapes also tabled a Commons motion last week highlighting the key humanitarian and security needs of the Kurds, slamming Baghdad's budget blockade and urging Baghdad "to swiftly agree a lasting settlement on these issues and also allow the KRG control over its airspace as part of a new confederal arrangement within the current borders of Iraq."

Abiding by international norms is what most governments do unless and until those norms can be amended and Abadi should understand that without a truly fresh start, pro-Kurdish voices will become louder.