Churchill, Major, and Anglo/Kurdish relations

Written By: Gary Kent
Published: March 19, 2018 Last modified: March 19, 2018

Debate on Kurdish rights once more took place in the Commons this week with a brief debate at short notice on the recent Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) report on “an important aspect of our foreign policy that, sadly, has often been overlooked by the United Kingdom for many years: the aspiration of the Kurdish people,” according to the FAC Chairman, Tom Tugendhat.

Asked about the UK’s long involvement in Kurdish affairs, Tugendhat (pictured, with Theresa May) acknowledged that it had not all been pretty. Conservative MP Philip Hollobone asked “Is not the truth about the Kurds that British foreign policy towards them has been wrong for about 100 years? They were abandoned by us in 1918, we ignored them in the treaty of Versailles, and the problem has persisted ever since. Is it not true that, without the Kurds, ISIS would not have been defeated?”

Tugendhat was commendably candid in telling Hollobone that he “is absolutely right,” and detailing: Britain’s history has not been good: “We must not forget the air policing, as it was then called. The then Colonial Secretary, one Winston Churchill, was the first person to use chemical weapons against the Kurds. Indeed, it was the RAF that dropped them. One reason that the RAF still exists is that it cut the cost of colonial policing by reducing the number of battalions required. I am afraid that that is true—we do not always have a glorious history.”

But Tugendhat also made the point about the positive experience of the no fly zone initiated by John Major from 1991 and that “the truth is that our role today is as a peacemaker and as an engaged friend of the whole region. In that, we should recognise that the Kurdish people have the right to self-determination, and we do recognise that, but we should encourage them to stay as part of the Republic of Iraq in the areas where they are within Iraq. Many witnesses we spoke to said that, although the referendum had called for independence, they were looking for greater autonomy within the Republic of Iraq, so there is more tension within the Kurdish position than appears immediately obvious.”

APPG Chairman, Jack Lopresti MP, who was unable to attend the debate, later said: “I would have commended the report in acknowledging the fears and views of many Kurds in Iraq but would have asked for more passionate pressure from the FAC for the need to persuade Baghdad to lift its restrictions on Kurdistan. As one who has been lucky enough to visit Kurdistan three times in recent years, I would praise the efforts of the Peshmerga, which was vital in defeating Daesh. I would also have highlighted the outrageous ban by Baghdad, for no constitutional or safety reasons, on flights to and from Kurdistan. It is unacceptable that this blockade has lasted for five months and I very much hope it will be lifted well before Newroz on 21 March. I know it is very difficult for many Kurds to use Baghdad to get in and out of the country and the damage is being done to those who need medical treatment, want to see relatives, and to do commerce. Unless it mends it ways and soon, Baghdad is proving the case for independence when a more far-sighted leadership should be asking what it can do to encourage Kurds to stay in Iraq as equals, and with the comprehensive implementation of the Iraqi constitution.”

I think that there is insufficient awareness that Iraq does not seem to have good intentions towards the Kurdistan Region. It cannot be said enough that there would not have been a referendum if Iraq had complied with its compact to uphold federalism which the Kurds made absolutely clear before rejoining Iraq and since was the condition of their staying.

The parameters of the discussion are often still confined to the need for what Tugendhat stressed was “supporting the autonomy of the people of the Kurdish region is important, but so is supporting the Iraqi Government’s right to territorial integrity.” But what is done when these imperatives clash. Merely asserting two conflicting rights in this case gives moral equivalence to the jailer and the prisoner: Iraq and Kurdistan. Yet the debate shows there is much goodwill towards the idea that the Kurds deserve better treatment and that needs to be built upon.