The Kurdish people are facing a deep crisis. Nowhere is their desperate situation clearer than the way an official visit by the Kurdistani PM, Nechirvan Barzani, to meet Emmanuel Macron in Paris has been seen as revolutionary. The meeting broke Iraq’s diplomatic blockade on the Kurds, and is part of France’s bid to kickstart a diplomatic demarche between the Kurds and Baghdad. The breakdown in relations was triggered as a result of September’s referendum, when a resounding 93 per cent of Kurds backed independence. Since then, Iraq has spurned all Kurdistani requests for talks to resolve their political differences. For his troubles this week, Macron was accused of meddling in Iraq’s affairs by Iraqi vice president Nuri al-Maliki. Yet while France is doing its best to help out its old ally, Britain keeps quiet.
This is a pity given the particular responsibility Britain has to the Kurdish people, which dates back to the secret Sykes-Picot deal of 1916. This eventually forced the Kurds into Iraq in the first place, but the relationship between the two countries is not only defined by this act of imperialism. In more recent years, the Kurds warmed to the British as a result of John Major’s innovative policy of setting up a no-fly zone and safe haven to keep the Kurds safe from Saddam Hussein. Tony Blair is also seen as a hero
by many Kurds, who view the 2003 Iraq invasion as a liberation.
But now Britain is doing the Kurds a disservice. It might have been reasonable enough for Boris Johnson to say (as he did in the days after the vote) that the referendum should have been ‘agreed with the Government of Iraq’; yet in the months since, Iraq has cracked down on the Kurds and Britain has done little to help. Baghdad’s air embargo has suffocated the Kurds, who now face shortages of vital supplies. Restrictions on financial transfers in and out of Kurdistan were also imposed. And territory, held under Kurdistani control after the Peshmerga stepped into the breach when Iraqi forces fled Isis, has also been violently snatched back.
Theresa May’s trip to Iraq last week gave an opportunity for the British government to speak up for the Kurdish cause. But the PM’s meeting with the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi did little to help mend relations with the Kurds. Normally, a British minister would visit Baghdad and then Kurdistan. Not this time. The Kurds – our bravest and most valuable ally in the fight against Isis – have been left to their own devices. The United States has taken the same approach: when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made the trip to Iraq recently, he also dodged a visit to the KRG capital, Erbil.
While Britain’s approach to the Kurds has been shameful, it is still not too late to do the right thing. It’s true that Theresa May has a lot on her plate but she should now take a leaf out of the French diplomatic dossier and invite Kurdistani leaders to London. In the mean time, the Kurds face economic ruin for the ‘crime’ of saying they don’t want to stay in a supposedly free union. Independence is off the table for now but the Kurds have rights in Iraq that are being ignored by vindictive politicians in Baghdad. Britain should follow France and use its heft to open the box for the Kurds in Iraq. It is the least we owe the Kurdish people.
Gary Kent was an observer in the September referendum in Kurdistan and
has visited there 25 times since 2006