Committees advise but ministers decide

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s reply, in the last few hours of this parliament and government, to the report of the foreign affairs committee on UK policy towards the Kurdistan region is a model of precision, or a perfunctory response to a sophisticated analysis of the Kurdish question. Its answer, for instance, to the committee’s recommendation that Britain should accept Iraqi Kurdish independence in certain conditions is terse – ‘The Government notes the Committee’s conclusion.’

The FCO argues that the Kurds have an important role to play in Iraq, and that the benefits of remaining in Iraq far outweigh independence. The FCO backs the Erbil-Baghdad agreement on exports and budget payments. Independence is not on the cards for now. The priority is defeating Islamic State. But there are big problems with the interim agreement on exports and payments. Falling oil prices, the disappearance of billions and the cost of the war have slashed Iraqi revenues but Kurdistan is being squeezed unfairly by a government that still seems to seek control rather than equality and partnership. If this continues, the long-term viability of federalism will be in the balance, whatever the FCO now says.

Defeating Islamic State also requires a decent federal offer to tempt Sunnis who see Islamic State as less of a problem than Baghdad with its reliance on Iran and Shia militias. The Kurds also need to defend themselves on a wide front with Islamic State. The committee had suggested that Britain does more. The FCO reply emphasises its ‘substantial’ military contribution to international efforts to counter Islamic State but the Kurds still lack sufficient heavy weapons.

As for the dire refugee issue in the Kurdistan Region, where over 1.5 million people have fled, the FCO agrees that the Kurdistan regional governmenthas been ‘extremely generous with their hospitality’ but fears that a ‘long war’ risks a prolonged and economically debilitating humanitarian crIslamic State, with hundreds of thousands unable to return to their homes, and the possibility of increased tensions between displaced people and the host community.

The FCO also notes the foreign affairs committee’s conclusion that the ‘The UK is fortunate to have in such a volatile part of the world a partner as relatively moderate, pragmatic, stable, democratic, secular and reflexively pro-Western as the KRG.’ The FAC had urged the government to urgently find and suitably staff a diplomatic post that matches the importance of the KRG as an ally against Islamic State and an important commercial partner. The current premises have not been fit for purpose for many years. The FCO reveals that the KRG has allocated land but the building will not be ready until 2017 or 2018. Direct air links are on hold because the UK currently advises its air carriers against flying to Iraq due to significant security concerns. The UK had been hopeful last summer but the advance of Islamic State suspended this pathway, which may be reinstated in the near term.

The FCO’s overall reply will clearly disappoint Kurds and their British friends. Committees advise but ministers decide. However, policy should adapt to changing conditions and the FAC has put down important intellectual markers for the debate about British foreign policy on Iraq and Kurdistan as well as a substantial menu of practical actions to advance Anglo-Kurdish connections. A new British government in May will have to come back to this work in progress.

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Gary Kent is director of the all-party parliamentary group on the Kurdistan region. He writes in a personal capacity and tweets @GaryKent

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Photo: James Gordon

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