Kurdish aspirations and the interests of the UK Contents


Kurdish aspirations for recognition and protection of their identity are complex. They differ for different groups in different places, and are pursued in different ways. But the Kurdish witnesses that we heard from all said that they sought solutions in their separate national contexts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, and this inquiry has considered the best way for HM Government to support these aspirations while opposing violence or unilateral moves. The aftermath of the war against Daesh has deepened these challenges.

In Iraq, Kurdish elements held an independence referendum in September 2017. A military confrontation then occurred between Kurdish forces and those of the Iraqi federal government. But despite the overwhelming vote in favour of leaving Iraq, Iraqi Kurdish witnesses frequently described that referendum as a last resort that would have preferably been avoided, although this view may have gained greater currency as a result of the backlash experienced by the Iraqi Kurds in the run-up to and aftermath of the referendum. Or they described it as a political negotiation strategy to win the Kurdistan Region an improved position within Iraq rather than necessarily gaining independence from it. Iraqi Kurdish witnesses were clear that they wanted a negotiated solution, within the framework of the Iraqi constitution. Baghdad says the same. But different interpretations of the constitution are raising tensions and risking conflict. The FCO should offer itself alongside international partners in an enhanced role of facilitating dialogue, and should secure the backing and support of the wider international community to play such a role.

The FCO must be prepared to criticise both Baghdad and the Iraqi Kurds when criticism is due. There are clear signs of corruption, and the possibility that democracy is being curtailed, in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). The FCO had little to say to us about these issues. It should supply, and encourage others to provide, capacity-building courses and training to promote political and economic reform in the KRI. It is also the case that the restrictions imposed by Baghdad on the KRI after the referendum, as well as the role played by Shi’a militias in confronting the Kurds, are only likely to encourage the Kurds on the path to departure rather than integration. Again, the Committee felt that the FCO did not adequately address these issues. The FCO should call for these restrictions to be lifted, and not shy away from giving a view on these militias’ activities and their connections with Iran.

In Syria, the political prominence of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) has risen in the north and east of the country with the military expansion of its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), during the war against Daesh. HM Government said that the UK has not provided any weapons to any Syrian group. But it has carried out airstrikes to support the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition of which the YPG is the preeminent component. Given the integral role of the YPG within the SDF, we conclude that UK military support to the SDF is likely to have assisted the YPG.

Turkey sees the PYD/YPG as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Like Turkey, the UK defines the PKK as a terrorist organisation. Unlike Turkey, it does not apply that designation to the PYD/YPG. But the evidence to our inquiry clearly argued that these organisations were linked, with the nature and extent of these links being debatable. But the FCO’s view was incoherent. Its statements refer to ‘reported’ links, but to have a clear policy the FCO should have its own clear view. The FCO should also have a position on whether the PYD/YPG should be included within the Geneva process to end Syria’s war and discuss the country’s future, given that new fighting and a further complication of the conflict risks being the alternative.

In light of the group’s influence in Syria, the FCO should clarify its own position on the relationship between the PYD/YPG and the PKK. Having supported the SDF militarily, the FCO must also be clear about whether it will continue to do so—and whether it will engage with the de facto authorities in the areas liberated by the SDF from Daesh—as the YPG, the SDF’s main component, comes into conflict with the UK’s NATO ally Turkey.

9 February 2018