With our support, the pro-western Kurdistan Region could be a magnet for decent, secular and progressive change in the Middle East, writes Gary Kent
The Kurds in Iraq have been less visible recently but this is only a lull before political storms about reconstruction, reform and remapping that will follow the military defeat of Daesh in Mosul. It would be a pyrrhic victory for the Muslim-estern alliance if the west once again abandons its allies in helping tackle the causes of extremism.
Following the 2014 Daesh onslaught on Iraq, the Peshmerga’s priority was defending their homeland, which now de facto includes the contested and historically Kirkuk province and city, evacuated by the retreating Iraqi Army, and other territories.
The Peshmerga have made a huge contribution to routing Daesh but their sacrifices include 10,000 injured and nearly 2,000 killed. Both were exacerbated by insufficient heavy weaponry to stop huge suicide bombs before they reached the frontlines. The west drip-fed them weapons and they have often been outgunned by Daesh, which captured tons of sophisticated American and Syrian army equipment.
Furthermore, inadequate frontline medical treatment meant soldiers died of wounds that killed British troops generations ago. Several countries have donated free beds to seriously injured Peshmerga and British members of parliament have urged the government to provide specialist beds in the Birmingham hospital where British casualties from Afghanistan and Iraq were treated. Despite a hopeful answer from David Cameron on his last day in office, the request has been denied.
The Peshmerga’s role in liberating Mosul occurred in the final quarter of 2016 when they captured many villages on the road to Mosul in an historically unique partnership with the Iraqi Army, which they fought during Saddam Hussein’s genocide against the Kurds.
The Peshmerga agreed not to enter Mosul itself to avoid sparking Kurdish-Arab tensions. They agreed with the Iraqis and the Americans to defend lines established at the beginning of the Mosul offensive – including Kirkuk. The Peshmerga have sacrificed blood there and will not leave. Kirkuk residents trust them and will probably agree to formally join the Kurdistan Region in a referendum, as will others.
The Kurds also have an interest in how Mosul is governed given that the city contains Kurds, and is next door. They fear that jihadists will exploit Sunni grievances to sustain a different Daesh or establish a new death cult, just as Al Qaeda morphed into Daesh.
Rehabilitating and reforming Sunnistan could grow a peaceful Sunni politics, revive its shattered economy, and reassure Christian and other minorities. This requires massive physical rebuilding and psychological care given scores of thousands have endured the worst imaginable terror. We should be talking about an economic and mental Marshall plan for post-Daesh conditions. This includes boosting education and deradicalisation.
And the viability of Iraq is in serious question. It disintegrated in June 2014 when Daesh captured a third of the country. The Kurds tried to make the Iraqi federalism work but that was dishonoured by Baghdad leaders, especially former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. The Kurds never received their full budget entitlements, which were entirely and unilaterally cut off by Maliki before Daesh attacked Mosul. This forced the Kurds into independent oil exports but their economy was ravaged by war, the influx of two million refugees and internally displaced people, slashed oil prices, and a dysfunctional and top-heavy economy dangerously reliant on oil and state employment.
Deep internal divisions have also been exposed and exacerbated by this perfect storm with parliament in suspension for over a year. Presidential and parliamentary elections are due in November and it is vital that divisions are resolved so the Kurds can present a united front and deepen reform, as prime minister Nechirvan Barzani has pledged.
Kurds often mention the secret Sykes-Picot plan of 1916 to carve up the Middle East between French and British imperialism. And how Kurds were denied statehood even as the post-Versailles world embraced self-determination. But Sykes-Picot was transcended by the stronger claims of other states and Kurdish disunity. Needless division should not diminish Kurdistani influence, although we are now speaking of four Kurdistans, just as there are several Arab countries.
Kurdish activists once urged great powers to facilitate independence. Such powers defend the status quo and will not do that. It would ironically mirror old imperialist machinations. Kurdistani leaders now seek to persuade Baghdad to accept an amicable divorce. Being landlocked means they need such a deal and they say separate countries could enjoy ever closer relations.
The process may accelerate when Daesh is defeated. MPs on the all-party parliamentary group on the Kurdistan Region are sympathetic to independence, as was the foreign affairs committee – whose groundbreaking report in 2015 concluded that the United Kingdom and others should respect independence, if done in the right way.
In a decade of meeting diplomats from different countries I have seen emphatic resistance to independence softening to neither advocating nor obstructing it. The ‘One Iraq’ policy remains but amicable divorce would make recognition a formality.
The pro-western Kurdistan Region could be a magnet for decent, secular and progressive change that can benefit its long-suffering people and the wider Middle East whether it renews the marriage vows with a genuinely federal Iraq or divorces, and if it resumes its democratic journey, and diversifies its economy. Solidarity with the Kurds will soon become more necessary than ever.
Gary Kent is director of the all-party parliamentary group on the Kurdistan Region and writes in a personal capacity. He tweets at @garykent
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.