Let’s have a straight-talking and honest political debate about Syria, Iraq and the refugee crisis. Our accepting 4,000, 40,000 or 400,000 Syrian refugees would alleviate problems, massively for those who settle here, but make little difference to millions displaced in the Middle East. Some highlight the impact of refugees on western economies but the normally five million population of Iraqi Kurdistan has swelled by a third in a year.
Two years ago I paid three visits to the main camp for Syrian Kurds in Kurdistan. It was mushrooming but things were relatively good because a growing Kurdistani economy could absorb the Syrian Kurds. But the sudden capture of Mosul in June 2014 pushed a million people into Kurdistan.
Kurdistan faces other problems. First, its budget from Baghdad was entirely cut in 2014 and is now down two-thirds. Salaries are months in arrears and investment projects have stalled. The economy is freefalling with rising poverty and unemployment.
Second, it is at war. Kurdistan last year acquired a 650-mile border with the so-called Islamic State, Daesh in local parlance. When Daesh attacked the Kurds in August, the existence of Kurdistan was at stake but western airstrikes keep the wolf at the door.
Most refugees and internally displaced persons want to go home. The Kurds have done wonders but anyone who has seen a camp knows that, however good, it is a life in limbo with insufficient cultural and educational nourishment, and it is not home. The only solution to the Syrian part of the refugee crisis is to end the Syrian war and destroy Daesh.
Part of that is continuing airstrikes in Iraq and Syria with the RAF playing a direct role in destroying Daesh targets in both countries. But airstrikes must be accompanied by continuing suppression of external support for Daesh with which compromise is impossible. That is more possible, if extremely difficult, with Basher al-Assad.
The Kurds can now defend their homeland as can the Shias but neither will be accepted in Sunnistan for very long. If Iraq as normal is the deal on offer, it will be difficult to achieve peace. Sunnis see how Baghdad treats the Kurds and think that if this is how Baghdad treats friends then how will renewed Baghdad rule treat them?
Whether genuine federalism is possible or the three parts of Iraq part with a pact for security and economic purposes is unknown. Either way, the priority is to help defend and stabilise the two democratic parts of Iraq and encourage Baghdad to accommodate Kurdish rights.
Kurdistan has come far since its uprising in 1991 but its divisions occasionally erupt and undermine its unity. British and American diplomats have recently been seeking to encourage compromise in a dispute over the president of Kurdistan Masoud Barzani’s term of office and there are cautious signs of hope.
The big change this time is that no one has resorted to arms. Democratic practitioners from countries such as Britain can help grow a political class capable of overcoming such problems and also accelerating the professional unification of the Peshmerga under the state.
The key is to help reboot and reform the economy. Kurdistan has been far too reliant on oil and gas but plummeting oil prices have rocked Iraq. Kurdistan’s increasing independent exports remain vital for paying civil servants and caring for refugees and IDPs. United Nations support for the refugees needs to increase, although the United Kingdom has a good record.
Left to itself, the economy will take too long to revive. Kurdistan needs a multibillion dollar international loan to boost investment in infrastructure and to drive economic diversification. A massive public sector crowds out the private sector – a good guarantor of political pluralism. Economic growth, pluralism and democratic renewal would be greatly assisted by a truly federal approach by Baghdad. They would also encourage Sunnis to see a future beyond Daesh. Before Daesh, an economically dynamic Kurdistan region was eroding tensions with the Sunnis. The Kurds achieved near-continuous electricity, compared to a few hours in Baghdad, and surpluses were exported to neighbouring Sunni provinces, which began to see that Kurdistan’s success could be shared, despite ancient political differences.
But will that be enough? The Kurds certainly need heavy weapons to defend themselves but the idea that the Kurds and Shia forces can by themselves take and hold Sunni territory is illusory. Western ground troops may be needed as part of a wider mix.
Such appeals for western intervention are unpopular but may be necessary or we will continue to see huge waves of miserable humanity seeking to leave Syria. It has degenerated in the last four years because anger over action in Iraq 2003 encouraged near-inaction in Syria. Inaction can be worse than the wrong sort of action, as many see the 2003 invasion. Inaction does not protect our own interests – the European Union may well be fracturing under the strain – but makes action costlier when finally faced. Straight-talking and honest debate is painful but urgent.
Gary Kent, who has visited Iraq and Kurdistan 21 times since 2006, is director of the all-party parliamentary group on the Kurdistan region but writes in a personal capacity. He tweets @garykent
Photo: Gary Kent
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