They like the British here in Iraqi Kurdistan. You hear it from people everywhere in Erbil, the region’s capital. And there were a great many of them out in the streets. It was hot and crowded on 25 September; the polls opened early for the Kurds to vote. The question was simple: did they want independence from Iraq? Did they, after over 2,000 years of statelessness, want their own sovereign nation?
48 hours after the question was officially put to the populace they replied– unequivocally. The Kurdish electoral commission said around 92 per cent voted ‘yes’ to an independent Kurdistan.
This answer – though entirely expected – did not go down well in Baghdad or with any of Erbil’s neighbours. The day before the vote, Iran closed its airspace to Kurdistan. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was also enraged. On the day the result was announced, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared that Erbil’s airport would be closed from 29 September and called on the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to ‘cancel’ the referendum’s result. He would, he said, ‘never have a dialogue about the referendum.’
In it efforts to achieve some measure of self-determination in a free and fair democratic vote, one of the world’s most persecuted peoples – and its largest stateless one – find themselves isolated and threatened by those around of them. The Middle East’s major Islamic powers want to strangle Kurdish statehood not at birth but in the womb.
Which is what makes Britain’s response so depressing. In the run-up to the vote its Ambassador to Iraq Frank Baker, declared that ‘the government of the United Kingdom does not believe that now is the right time to hold the referendum for the Kurdish Region,’ he said. ‘We do not have a problem with holding a referendum at some stage. It has to be agreed with the government of Iraq in Baghdad.’
Now how’s that for a master class in fence–sitting?
This is why the Kurds feel so let down. Outside a polling station in central Erbil, I met Ahmad, a barber. He was, like so many Kurds that day, attired in the traditional national dress: a top (kurtak), trousers (sherwal) together with a cummerbund-style belt (peshten) and white shoes (klash). ‘Does the UK not support us when they say they are for human rights,’ he asked me. ‘All the peoples of Europe have their own country? All we are asking for is the same. What is wrong with that?’
It was a lament I heard repeatedly on referendum day. Kosha Hussain, a British Kurd, who lives in Kurdistan’s second city Sulaymaniyah summed up the feeling: ‘It is disappointing and at once hurtful towards a people who have been a reliable western ally,’ he told me. ‘Those who understand the Middle East know that the Kurds have always dreamed of a Kurdish state. When the U.K and other western allies supported the Kurds during the bloody and costly conflict to defeat Isis in the Kurdish areas, they surely weren’t ignorant to the fact that they were also thereby supporting the establishment of a Kurdish state?’
He makes a valid point. The Western coalition was happy to have the Kurds furiously battle Isis but not so willing, it seems, to show support in return.
What makes this all so shameful is that the UK has traditionally played a strong role in Kurdish affairs. It was instrumental in setting up the post Gulf War One 1991 no-fly zone over northern Iraq and kicking Saddam’s army out of the region. It’s partly why the Kurds like us, and what makes our stance on the referendum so puzzling to them.
But a weakened Tory party leads a UK more concerned with Brexit negotiations than Middle East policy. And Hussain also fears that the possibility of a second Scottish referendum makes London even more reluctant to support the Kurds. ‘If the government is seen supporting the independence of Iraqi-Kurdistan, then the Scots will certainly use this as fuel for their own self-determination agenda,’ he says.
But now is not the time for pusillanimity. If this government wants to make its mark it can start by reasserting itself on the world stage – and do so through supporting a long time ally. And we will benefit. In an Islamic Middle East region cleaved by sectarian strife, religious fundamentalism and anti-Western feeling, the Kurds stand alone as largely (though by no means exclusively) in tune with the secular and democratic values we are supposed to hold dear.
We need an ally like the Kurds. We must support their bid for independence, for their sake – and for ours.
David Patrikarakos is the author of Nuclear Iran: the Birth of an Atomic State, a contributing editor at the Daily Beast, and a contributing writer at Politico.