Kurdistan—a beacon of hope

Beleaguered and neglected, the Kurds remain the West’s best hope in the Middle East

Robert Halfon

Which nation in the Middle East—inhabited by around six million people, surrounded by hostile neighbours, gassed by chemical weapons—has endured mass murder and faces a regular threat from terrorists, while sharing a border with a resurgent Iran? Which nation’s leaders want to expand religious pluralism, women’s rights, democratic aspirations, an open economy and choose alliances with the UK and the West?  The answer is a country that is not quite a country: the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

The Kurds were corralled a century ago into Iraq to balance Sunni and Shia Arabs, many of whom never fully embraced their non-Arab compatriots. In the 1980s, this hostility culminated in a genocide during Saddam Hussein’s Anfal campaign—a Koranic term meaning the “Spoils of War”. The Kurdistani countryside became a free-fire zone, where thousands of villages were erased. Iraqi jets attacked the town of Halabja with chemical weapons which instantly killed 5,000 people and maimed many more. To ensure that the Kurds could not shelter from the mustard gas, Hussein first dropped conventional bombs on buildings and homes. About 200,000 people were murdered.

It is strange that whilst the world knows much about modern genocide—the Bosnians by the Serbs, the tragedy of Rwanda—little is known about the Kurdish story. In fact, though the British Parliament recognises the Anfal as genocide, the United Nations does not; something that I, chairing a committee of academics, lawyers, and Parliamentarians, am trying to change. The facts are these: if you define genocide as scientifically planned mass murder with various stages of development—notably, marginalisation, demonisation, and eradication—then the Kurds did indeed suffer genocide.

Hussein and the Baathists were determined to “vacuum” the Kurds from Iraq, partly because of Arabist nationalism, partly out of a desire to gain full control over Kurdish lands. Hundreds of thousands of Kurds were killed in a campaign that began in 1963 and carried through to 1969, 1976 and 1988. In these years, thousands of Kurdish villages were destroyed, prison camps built and torture chambers established. In one, called “the Red House” (which I have seen for myself), there was even an Auschwitz-style incinerator. Women were raped in what was known as “the party room”; their foetuses and babies were burnt.

An uprising in 1991 liberated the Red House and millions of Kurds fled to the mountains, which they often poignantly describe as their only friends. British public opinion was horrified by scenes of their helplessness, as they died from air attacks, exposure and starvation. This encouraged the then British prime minister, John Major, to support a no-fly zone, policed by the RAF with French and American jets for 12 years.

Now a safe haven, Kurds began catching up with the world by embracing parliamentary democracy, a free economy and building an education and university system. I have witnessed major progress on many visits after what Kurds describe as the “liberation” of Iraq in 2003. Their autonomous regional government secured economic détente with Turkey and developed an energy sector—exploiting huge oil reserves—whose revenues boosted living standards and infrastructure. Exiles returned (in many cases from Britain). Sleepy cities became cosmopolitan. Foreign investment flowed. Security and stability are commendable, with far fewer deaths than the rest of Iraq.

English is widely used and is the teaching language in four universities. Kurds value our goods, services and political expertise. They ask us to help find a final settlement with Iraq on issues that have long prompted conflict, such as the disputed status of oil-rich Kirkuk; and to encourage a reliable relationship with Baghdad.

Iraqi Kurds also demonstrated their strategic importance in leading the resistance to the extremists of ISIS, who captured Mosul and a third of Arab Iraq in 2014, before turning on Kurdistan. The Kurdish army, the Peshmerga, helped repel ISIS. Kurds also immediately and generously sheltered a huge influx of displaced people from Mosul, thereby increasing their population by a third. Over one million remain. Kurds have a fellow feeling for those who flee their homes. It is extraordinary just how many different religious and ethnic groups have been welcomed in Kurdistan. The region has a Muslim-majority, but they identify primarily as Kurdistanis, a term that includes non-Muslims such as Christians, Yazidis and Jews. The Jewish population used to be sizeable and, even today, the government is preserving ancient Jewish synagogues.

Kurdish leaders always explain to visitors that they live in a tough neighbourhood. That would worsen significantly if the new Iraqi government decides to act on a parliamentary demand to expel those foreign troops—mainly US, but also British—which remain vital to the defeat of Daesh.

Iraqi Kurds are neither pawns nor mercenaries. Their fight was ideological and for peaceful co-existence: they practise a moderate religion and run secular public services while expanding women’s rights. They are trying to overcome common Middle East pathologies, such as top-down statist economics, over-reliance on energy and corruption (although less widespread here than in the rest of Iraq). The Kurds need friends who talk honestly with them about reform and encourage the transfer of more expertise and investment to cultivate a smarter state with quality services, a larger private sector and civil society.

Many argue that the incubation of a radical religious ideology in the Middle East makes it the world’s biggest security threat. It is true that Islamism infects more numerous Muslim communities elsewhere, and suffocates wider democracy and development. But many people in the Middle East—like the Kurds—despise Islamism. Their goals coincide with ours. Our support can enable them to become a better beacon of democratic and progressive values, for our mutual benefit. We should imagine a time when we can reflect on a huge struggle in the Middle East to defeat bigotry and realise the region’s massive potential, and proudly say we chose to back and bolster the Kurds.

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