Kurdish aspirations and the interests of the UK Contents

1‘Kurdish aspirations’

4.Kurdish identity is diverse, and many factors can contribute. Witnesses described the approximately 30 million Kurds who live in the Middle East,4 as well as those in the diaspora, as sharing distinctive languages and cultural elements. Kurdish political parties were also described to us as being ideologically distinctive, and often premised around the influence of personalities such as Abdullah Öcalan, or the Barzani and Talabani families in Iraq. And supportive witnesses argued that the Kurds held values that were distinctive in the Middle East, and shared with the UK.5 They described, for example, a greater culture of gender egalitarianism among the Kurds.6 They also referred to an identity that was not premised on religion, and that protected both ethnic and religious minorities.7 Kurdish witnesses emphasised a political system based on elections,8 and an outlook that was internationally-orientated (particularly towards the western world).9

5.These perceived values have underpinned praise for the Kurds. The Kurdistan Solidarity Campaign called the self-declared and predominantly-Kurdish region of northern Syria “a beacon for democratic and human rights in the Middle East”.10 Referring specifically to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), the Rt Hon Boris Johnson MP, the Foreign Secretary, said that “it is unlike, or could be, very different from many other places in that vicinity. It could be democratic, liberal and pluralist. It is an astonishing thing”.11 He said that it “could be a beacon, an oasis”.12 Also speaking about the KRI, the Rt Hon Alistair Burt MP, the Minister of State for the Middle East, said that:

The Kurdish regional area shares our values: a belief in democracy, tolerance and liberal values, diversity, and preventing extremism—so there are good reasons why we have a long relationship.13

6.But Mr Burt said that it was important not to idealise the Kurds.14 Several submissions accused specific Kurdish groups of violating the above values despite rhetorically supporting them. Those criticisms are examined later in this Report. Mr Burt also said that it was important not to generalise. In terms of ‘the Kurds’ being a “unified group of people” with “commonality in all sorts of areas […] politics, values, interests and so on”, the Minister told us that “nothing is ever that simple”.15 Witnesses said, for example, that while there were distinctive Kurdish languages, Kurds were still often divided among themselves by different dialects or because they speak other languages.16 The divisive salience of ‘tribal’ identities was noted, often underpinning patronage networks or exacerbating the factor that most witnesses described as the deepest division between Kurds: the significant and longstanding political differences, and in some cases rivalry, between Kurdish factions and regions.17

7.Despite these differences, witnesses described a shared sense of solidarity between the Kurdish communities that form minorities within Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq. They also described a shared sense of persecution among Kurds, rooted in a sense that their identity had been threatened with non-recognition or even eradication by the central governments of the states in which they are minorities, as well as by the menace of Daesh.18 This sense of solidarity and of persecution has in turn contributed to a sense of ‘statelessness’19—the absence of a state in which Kurds form a majority—informing debates about how best to achieve the central tenet of Kurdish aspirations: the recognition and protection of their distinctive identity.

8.Regional countries have strongly opposed any secession by their Kurdish communities. The FCO told us that the UK supports the sovereignty and territorial integrity of regional states. It is also the case that many Kurds are firmly integrated within the states where they live.20 But a ‘pan-Kurdish’ identity, characterised by the imagination of a ‘Greater Kurdistan’ connecting areas in the Middle East where Kurds live, has been salient for some Kurds. Kurdish witnesses and their supporters nevertheless argued that, although it might retain symbolic value, this idea of ‘Greater Kurdistan’ was not now a practical political objective. In terms of ‘where’ Kurdish aspirations should be achieved, these witnesses said that that Kurds in different countries now looked to separate solutions in their own, distinctive national contexts rather than to a cross-border, ‘pan-Kurdish’ outcome. For example:

9.In terms of ‘how’ Kurdish aspirations would be achieved in these national settings, witnesses emphasised the achievement of rights and recognition within these existing regional states rather than through independence from them. For example:

10.The rejection of secession as a way of achieving Kurdish aspirations was challenged in Iraq where—on 25 September 2017, and despite opposition from Baghdad, regional states, and the international community—Iraqi Kurds held an independence referendum that delivered a clear vote in favour: 93% on a turnout of 72%, according to Kurdish sources.31 But Iraqi Kurdish parties were divided over the referendum,32 and Kurdish witnesses described the vote as a last resort33 that would have preferably been avoided through the protection of Kurdish rights under the Iraqi constitution.34 And, despite posing a question about secession, several Iraqi Kurdish witnesses argued that the vote was non-binding and did not necessarily relate to the achievement of independence now, or perhaps even in the future. It was described instead as part of a bargaining strategy, through which the KRG sought to negotiate an improved position for itself while remaining, for now at least, within Iraq.35

11.For those who hold them, specifically-Kurdish aspirations seek to secure recognition and protection for distinctively-Kurdish identities. These identities are diverse, and vary between different contexts. So too, therefore, do the ways in which Kurds seek to fulfil these aspirations. There is no state in which the Kurds form a majority. As such, and given that their identity has been denied—or been used as a basis for persecution and sometimes violence—by the governments in the states where they have minority status, Kurdish aspirations have been voiced against the governments of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran.

12.Kurdish witnesses told us that the idea of breaking Kurdish regions away from these four states, and merging them into an independent state of ‘Greater Kurdistan’, had been abandoned. They instead looked for solutions in their own national contexts where, again, many told us that independence was not the outcome they now sought. Even Iraqi Kurdish witnesses, whose region held a referendum on independence in September 2017, 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. Despite it delivering a vote in favour of independence, some Kurdish witnesses described the referendum as a political negotiation strategy to win the Kurdistan Region an improved position within Iraq rather than necessarily gaining independence from it.

13.These disputes can only be resolved by those in the region. But the FCO should support meaningful political participation and representation for Kurds, as well as cultural recognition, equal rights, and economic opportunities for them, underpinned by national constitutions and achieved through negotiation, as a means of fulfilling Kurdish aspirations. It is not in the UK’s interests for any state to deny Kurdish identity through law or force. It is likewise not in the UK’s interests for Kurdish groups to seek their goals through violence or unilateral moves.

4 The Kurds are a group of people who live in, or derive from, an area at the core of the Middle East that centres upon parts of southern and eastern Turkey, northern Syria, northern Iraq, and western Iran. Witnesses said that it was difficult to provide accurate numbers for the Kurds’ population, and explained that a sizable Kurdish diaspora community lives outside of this region, but Guney Yildiz, a Visiting Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, and Dr Zeynep Kaya both estimated that around 30 million Kurds lived within the Middle East (Q24).

5 For example, the KRG representation to the UK wrote that “the UK and the Kurdistan Region share fundamental interests and values” (KUR0003) para 34, the Movement of Change (Gorran) from Iraq referred to “common values” with the UK (KUR0026), and the PYD—a predominantly-Kurdish party from Syria—said in its submission that it “complies with the democratic values of the United Kingdom” (KUR0023), ‘On the Legitimate Self-Defence Issue’.

6 See, for example, references by Dr Nazand Begikhani (Q5) and Dr Zeynep Kaya (Q26) regarding the Iraqi Kurds, and the PYD (KUR0023), ‘On the Rojava and Northern Syria Issue’, regarding northern Syria.

7 See, for example, see references by Professor Mohammed Ihsan (Q1) and the London Kurdish Institute about the Iraqi Kurds (KUR0009) para 6, and the PYD regarding northern Syria (KUR0023), ‘On the Legitimate Self-Defence Issue’.

8 See, for example, references to “democratic values” by the Kurdistan Democratic Party, KDP, (KUR0014), ‘Emerge of Daesh and filling the gap by Peshmarga’, and the London Kurdish Institute (KUR0009) para 6, regarding the Iraqi Kurds. For northern Syria, see the emphasis on elections by the PYD (KUR0023), ‘The PYD’s Vision for the Syrian Solution’.

9 See, for example, references to close ties with the west by Professor Mohammed Ihsan (Q1), the KDP (KUR0014) ‘UK-KRG relations’, and Gary Kent, the Secretary of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq (KUR0018) para 3.

10 Kurdistan Solidarity Campaign (KUR0020) para 5

11 Oral Evidence from the Foreign Secretary November 2017, HC 538, Q96

12 Oral Evidence from the Foreign Secretary November 2017, HC 538, Q97

13 Q124

14 Q125

15 Q125

16 See, for example, (Q25) Dr Zeynep Kaya

17 See, for example, descriptions of Kurdish factionalism by BBC Monitoring (KUR0022), the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (KUR0015), and Bill Park, a Visiting Research Fellow at King’s College London (KUR0013) para 3.

18 For example, Dr Nazand Begikhani told the Committee that the Kurds “have resisted the different politics in the region practised against them. They have resisted politics of denial, politics of physical elimination, identity discrimination and extreme violence” (Q5), and argued that “in all parts of Kurdistan, Kurds have experienced persecution and violent, chauvinistic ideologies” (Q7). Other examples of evidence describing the persecution of the Kurds include answers from Professor Mohammed Ihsan (e.g. Q4 and Q18), and the submission from BBC Monitoring which says of the Kurds that “their struggle since to achieve recognition of Kurdish identity or nationhood and the opposition they have faced to this have been key factors in instability and conflict in Kurdish regions” (KUR0022) ‘Introduction’.

19 (Q5); BBC Monitoring (KUR0022) ‘Introduction’

20 The submissions from the Turkish Embassy (KUR0027) and Iraqi Embassy (KUR0025) gave examples of Kurdish employment and participation in the state in Turkey and Iraq.

21 Q14 [Dr Nazand Begikhani]

22 Q13 [Professor Mohammed Ihsan], Footnote 8

23 Q14 [Professor Mohammed Ihsan]

24 Q87

25 Democratic Union Party (KUR0023) ‘On the Kurdish issue’

26 Q87

27 Alan Semo, the UK representative of the PYD, Q73

28 Kurdistan Solidarity Campaign (KUR0020) Para 4

29 See, for example, Dr Zeynep Kaya’s reference to the PKK’s goals as “increased Kurdish rights and increased democratisation within the boundaries of Turkey” (Q22), or references to “autonomy” by Bill Park (KUR0013) para 25 and BBC Monitoring (KUR0022) ‘PKK’. Guney Yildiz also described a “significant evolution” in the PKK’s thought (Q27).

30 Foreign and Commonwealth Office said that “while the PKK’s original objective was to achieve Kurdish independence from Turkey, since the 1990s this objective has changed. Öcalan now claims to advocate ‘democratic autonomy’ for Kurds, with a focus on equal cultural and political rights within the Turkish state rather than secession” (KUR0015) para 24.

31 See, for example, Gary Kent, Secretary of the Kurdistan Region in Iraq APPG (KUR0018) para 45, London Kurdish Institute (KUR0009) para 3, and the KRG representation to the UK (KUR0003) para 33.

32 Of the main Kurdish parties, witnesses generally described the vote as being driven by the KDP, partly supported by the PUK, and warned against by Gorran as well as other, smaller parties. See the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (KUR0015) para 21, BBC Monitoring (KUR0022) ‘Iraqi Kurdistan statehood referendum’, Bill Park (Q94), and Dr Zeynep Kaya (Q40).

33 Karwan Jamal Tahir, the UK representative of the KRG, said that “we only held the referendum […] because the constitution was violated”. The KRG representation to the UK referred in written and oral evidence to having “no choice” but to hold the vote (see for example Q49, Q50, and (KUR0003) para 12).

34 Professor Mohammed Ihsan said that “if Iraq were democratic and federal and implemented its constitution, the Kurds of Iraq would never, ever think of going for independence or for a referendum” (Q14). The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) said that “had the Iraqi governments implemented the constitution […] Kurds most probably would have not gone to [a] referendum” (KUR0014), ‘Executive Summary’. Dr Massood Al-Mufti was clear that, from his own perspective, “as an Iraqi Kurd I would much prefer to remain within a strong, united, democratic, liberal, and federal Iraq” (KUR0007) para 7.

35 Dr Nazand Begikhani described the referendum as aiming “to sort out their outstanding disagreements with Baghdad peacefully and establish a confederal model of governance in Iraq with greater autonomy” (Q8), while the Kurdistan Democratic party called it “not binding, [but] to give a strong mandate for the Kurds to negotiate with Baghdad in order to solve all the issues and disputes” (KUR0014) ‘Executive Summary’. Gary Kent wrote that, after the vote, “Kurdistani leaders also left open the possibility of a genuine and reliable federal settlement or confederation” (KUR0018) para 25. Dr Yousif Mohammed Sadiq, the former speaker of the KRI’s parliament, described the KRG’s leaders as “gambling with its people’s rights of self- determination” (KUR0021) para 1.1, II. The Middle East Minister, the Rt Hon Alistair Burt MP, told the Committee that he was aware of the idea that the referendum was a bargaining tactic, and said that “we advised the KRG that just because they saw it as a bargaining chip, that did not necessarily mean that that was how it was seen in Baghdad” (Q134).

9 February 2018