The implosion of Iraq and the durability of Islamic State 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, except in Syrian Kurdish areas. 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 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. Many billions of state funds have also vanished, corruption is rife and public services are atrocious. Falling oil prices make recovery even harder.
Erbil 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 per cent of Iraqi federal revenues. But Haider al-Abadi, the new Iraqi prime minister, now admits he cannot honour the promise, although negotiations continue.
After an initial wobble, Iraqi Kurds are now seen as determined and efficient opponents of Isis but are hobbled by shortages of heavy weapons, which have been withheld lest they later drive independence. The Kurds are also struggling with a massive influx of refugees, as well as the aforementioned budget shortfalls.
The defence committee report concludes that Iraq’s ‘deep polarisation and structural weaknesses’ has allowed Isis to become resilient, and may now mean that containment is more realistic than total elimination. Britain’s military contribution, it says, has been ‘strikingly modest,’ and we should assist more.
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 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. 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, a medium-term possibility that should be accepted and respected in certain conditions.
On returning from Kurdistan, 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.
Gary Kent is the Director of the all-party parliamentary group on the Kurdistan Region and a columnist for the Kurdish Rudaw newspaper. He writes in a personal capacity and can be found tweeting @garykent