The coming Kurdish spring

British recognition of the genocide against Iraqi Kurds reinforces their significant political and economic successes of the past ten years since the 'liberation' of the Iraq war. What future lies ahead for those in neighbouring Kurdistans?

Gary Kent
13 March 2013

The formal decision by the Commons to recognise the genocide against the Kurds of Iraq is a major milestone that should lift the profile of the 25th anniversary of Halabja during a time when many audit the merits of the 2003 intervention in Iraq. It also helps illuminate the wider position of the Kurds in the Middle East.

People understandably ask why it took so long for the Commons to recognise this genocide, which began fifty years ago, in hindsight. The simple truth is that it has taken this long for the Iraqi Kurds to sufficiently overcome its effects and for them and their supporters to advocate recognition in a concerted manner.

The reason for this is also simple: the Iraqi Kurds had enough on their plate surviving the period from 1991-2003, when they were relatively but not certainly safe from Saddam thanks to the protection of the western no-fly zone, and when their still ravaged and impoverished society also endured a bitter civil war. The period since what they refer to as liberation, the military intervention in 2003, has been dominated by an accelerated drive to renew their economy and society with a huge measure of success.

In addition, we’ve learned from the Holocaust that survivors have more pressing priorities at the start. Many simply want to get their lives back and don't want to pass their nightmares onto their children. The self-imposed silence of many Holocaust survivors was only broken after about 20 years, when modern movements to mark the Holocaust began. It is now a routine feature in many countries, which accept the need for new generations to remember the enormity of Nazi crimes.

It was only a year ago that the Iraqi Kurds, through their London High Representation office, agreed a plan of action with sympathetic parliamentarians, academics, lawyers and others. The form that the campaign took was an e-petition, spearheaded by the only Kurdish born MP in the Commons, Conservative Nadhim Zahawi. This route allows those issues with 100,000 signatures to be considered for a special debate supervised by the new Back Bench Business Committee, which has the right to allocate a portion of parliamentary time.

The e-petition, which finishes soon, didn't reach that threshold but is one of the highest ranking e-petitions on a foreign issue at nearly 30,000 signatures. It became apparent that many people were completely unaware of the genocide, and that Halabja and so much else has been supplanted in the political imagination of a new generation by more recent developments.

MPs were anyway able to demonstrate that the cause of recognition commanded cross-party support and that a debate near the 25th anniversary - 16 March - of the largest chemical attack against a civilian population would be highly topical.

The special debate took place last week and heard impassioned speeches from friends of the Kurds on both sides of the House including stalwarts Jeremy Corbyn and Ann Clwyd, who were the first to raise Halabja in the Commons within days of the attack in 1988.

The debate was very different in tone and content from the typical ‘yah-boo’ debates. The Conservative Minister for the Middle East, Alistair Burt, regretted that the then British Government ignored pleas after Halabja to boycott an arms fair in Baghdad. Labour MP, Dave Anderson, who had completely opposed the intervention in 2003, said that his contacts with the Kurdish labour movement had persuaded him that intervention should have happened earlier and possibly stopped the genocide and Halabja.

There was much give and take with both the Official Opposition and the Minister saying, in response to the power of backbench speeches, that they would co-operate to see if they could find a pathway to overcome legal obstacles to recognition. Spectators, including a survivor of Halabja, could see the Minister consult his Labour counterpart and officials to quickly change his prepared comments.

More widely, this debate and interest reflect the growing salience of Kurds in the Middle East after decades of neglect and betrayal.The substantial oil and gas reserves of Iraqi Kurdistan, which have only become apparent in the last few years as they have built up their energy sector from nothing to become the oil exploration capital of the world, puts the Kurdistan Region on the map and makes it more important than many sovereign countries.

Turkish trade and investment with and in Iraqi Kurdistan has mushroomed in recent years. This bolsters and drives further rapprochement between Turkey and Kurdistan. The most high-profile symbol came last year when Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Massoud Barzani was invited to address the congress of the ruling Justice and Development party in Ankara and his speech, in Kurdish, was broadcast live on television. Given decades of refusal to fully acknowledge the existence of millions of Kurds and their language in Turkey, this was astonishing.

Turkey now looks to its neighbour as a significant contributor to its energy requirements. The fast-growing Turkish economy spends half its import bill on energy from Russia and Iran. Russian gas is expensive and Iranian gas will soon be prohibited. Proposed pipelines from the Kurdistan Region to Turkey will enable independent exporting, further underpin economic and political relations and make the Kurds less dependent on the caprice of Baghdad.  It also makes Turkey an energy hub for Europe and the UK. Should Turkey one day join the European Union, Kurdistan will be on the new border.

This will also have a beneficial impact on prospects for ending the long and bloody war between the Kurdish paramilitary PKK and Turkey, which has claimed 40,000 lives in the last 30 years. Reports indicate that a ceasefire could begin as early as 21 March, which is Newroz - the start of the Kurdish Spring. It appears that the KRG has been exercising its influence behind the scenes. Peace could prompt a profound process of change that delivers equality for millions of Kurds in Turkey.

The KRG has also been active in seeking to improve the situation of the Syrian Kurds, who form a significant, long repressed and sometimes stateless minority. If Assad is overthrown, the Kurds want to ensure that any new dispensation doesn't duplicate the exclusion of the Kurds.The position of the Iranian Kurds is also changing in the face of a regime that brutally suppresses them and others, seeking greater autonomy and language rights. Iranian Kurds are trying to overcome their internal differences and make alliances with other minorities, which together outweigh the Persian Shia minority that dominates Iranian politics.

The Kurds in Syria, Iran and Turkey have all been inspired by the great degree of autonomy achieved in Iraqi Kurdistan. This is often referred to as southern Kurdistan, with the east being in Iran, the west in Syria and the North in Turkey. The idea of a Greater Kurdistan dates from the turn of the last century; although it was briefly a possibility when the end of the First World War put self-determination on the agenda and borders shifted with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, it failed to materialize.

People often ask me if a Greater Kurdistan is possible. It certainly remains an aspiration in the hearts of all Kurds. But overturning long-established borders and carving a new country out of four existing entities is probably, at least now, an elusive dream.

There has been increased discussion about whether Iraqi Kurdistan could leave or even be pushed out of Iraq, thanks to its new links with Turkey, its bitter war of words with Baghdad and its economic sabotage of the Region's energy sector. However, if these disputes can be resolved - and there are positive signs - the Iraqi Kurds may well conclude that it would be unwise to jump out of the Iraqi fire into the Turkish frying pan. A strong and autonomous region in a federal and democratic Iraq with Turkish and other links could be their final destination. The loss of the Kurds would be most deeply felt by Iraq where the Kurds could continue to be a dynamic driver of democracy and prosperity, although both the Region and the country have a long distance yet to travel to overcome decades of fascism.

Having discussed all this with leaders from the other Kurdistans in Syria, Turkey and Iran, I wonder if the new Kurdish profile and importance will be accompanied by a grand historical compromise - the acceptance of current borders in exchange for democracy, equality, sometimes federalism and language and cultural rights.

That could be the benign solution but there are many variables in a long and complex equation, and the fragile position of the Kurds at the often violent vortex of the old Arab, Persian and Ottoman empires is historically clear. My own hope is that the recognition of past crimes against the Kurds in Iraq may come to be seen as the point when a line is drawn under their past and begin what could come to be seen as a long overdue Kurdish Spring.

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