Kurdish aspirations and the interests of the UK Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

Kurdish aspirations

1.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. (Paragraph 11)

2.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. (Paragraph 12)

3.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. (Paragraph 13)

Developments in northern Iraq and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq

4.There is a serious risk that tensions between the Iraqi federal government and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), which have been worsened by the independence referendum and its aftermath, will result in conflict. This violence and instability would be detrimental to the interests of the UK. But it can still be averted. Our evidence showed that both sides are committed to resolving their differences through negotiation. But negotiations are being impeded by profound differences, not least that each side accuses the other of violating the constitution and both emphasise different aspects of that document. (Paragraph 24)

5.The FCO has played a diplomatic role in trying to prevent or resolve conflict between the federal government and the KRI, and it wants to continue to play such a role in the future. The Minister rejected the word “mediate”, saying that that this is a sovereign matter for Iraqis to resolve. We agree. But the two sides would clearly benefit from any assistance that the UK, in cooperation with international partners, can offer. The FCO should write to the Government of Iraq, formally offering itself in an enhanced role of facilitating dialogue if that is desired. This would be an offer from a sincere and concerned ally that has a long history of close ties and cooperation with both sides and a shared interest in preventing conflict. The FCO should also secure the backing and support of the wider international community to play such a role. (Paragraph 25)

6.The Iraqi Kurds held an independence referendum in the face of overwhelming opposition from the Iraqi government and the international community. They unilaterally included the disputed territories that Kurdish forces had occupied, and failed to disaggregate the results. We praise the FCO’s efforts to find an alternative way of meeting Kurdish aspirations. But the overwhelming vote in favour of independence was a manifestation of deep frustration and dissatisfaction with the KRI’s place in Iraq. The restrictions imposed by Baghdad after the referendum will inevitably be seen as punitive, and collectively so, in the KRI. They, along with the role played in subsequent events by Iraqi Shi’a militias connected with Iran, are only likely to encourage the Kurds on a path to departure rather than integration. (Paragraph 26)

7.As the FCO offers its support to the Iraqi government and the KRI when possible, it should also be prepared to criticise them when necessary. This should be part of an effort to achieve not only a dialogue between leaders, but a positive interaction between people on both sides to turn—as far as possible—mutual suspicion into a shared belief that they can all benefit from being diverse regions of a united country. The FCO told us that, while it could potentially accept any outcome—including independence—that was negotiated consensually with the government of Iraq, its preference would be for the Kurdistan Region to remain in a united Iraq. But many Kurds feel imprisoned in a country that they see as not implementing its commitments of equality to them. The FCO must therefore press for these commitments to be fulfilled. The FCO should:

i)press the government of Iraq to lift the restrictions placed on the Kurdistan Region of Iraq after the referendum.

ii)set out its assessment of the role of Shi’a militias in the re-acquisition of the disputed territories, and whether reports of crimes being committed by them are credible.

iii)set out its assessment of the extent to which Iran supports, or controls, these militias.

iv)explain the extent to which it recognises problems of a) corruption and b) the monopolisation of power or curtailment of democracy in the Kurdistan Region, and what steps the FCO is taking in response. Corruption is a serious problem in Iraq in general, and it risks impeding the reconstruction of that country.

v)supply and encourage others to provide capacity-building courses and training that equip KRI policy-makers and others with the greater ability to promote political reform and economic reform and diversification. (Paragraph 27)

Developments in northern Syria

8.Although the UK says that it has not provided any weapons to any Syrian group, it has carried out airstrikes to support the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF consists of other units in addition to the YPG, but our evidence shows—and the FCO appeared to agree—that the YPG is the preeminent component in the coalition. Given how integral the YPG is to the SDF, UK military support to the SDF is likely to have assisted the YPG. The FCO should:

i)provide an assessment of whether the YPG has benefitted militarily from UK airstrikes.

ii)explain its future policy towards the YPG and SDF in all areas under their control, including whether the UK will continue to provide military or other support to the SDF after the defeat of Daesh.

iii)explain its position towards Turkish military intervention in northern Afrin, and other areas of northern Syria. (Paragraph 38)

9.The Turkish government considers the PYD/YPG to be an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and therefore considers it to be a terrorist organisation. The UK defines the PKK as a terrorist organisation, but does not define the PYD/YPG as such. The PKK and the PYD/YPG operate in different contexts, but the evidence to our inquiry clearly argued that they were linked. There is nevertheless debate about whether those links are abstract and historical, or deep and current. (Paragraph 39)

10.The FCO’s view about the nature and extent of the links between the PYD/YPG and the PKK, or about whether those links exist at all, is not coherent. Its repeated reference to these links being ‘reported’ is not sufficient or credible. To have a clear policy the FCO should have a clear view. 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. The FCO should:

i)specifically answer whether it sees no links between the PYD/YPG and the PKK, OR it sees abstract and historical links (such as a common heritage or ideology or inspiration), OR it sees deep and current links (such as shared organisation, or the exchange of weapons, personnel, finances, training, or safe-havens).

ii)answer whether it sees a risk of the PYD/YPG providing support to the PKK in the future.

iii)explain, having refused to speculate a year ago about the risk of clashes between the YPG and Turkey, what prior assessments it made of the impact that the provision of military support to the SDF by the Global Coalition would have on the security of, and relations with, the UK’s NATO ally Turkey. It should provide an assessment of how the operation in Afrin will impact on these issues, as well as on the possibility of Daesh’s re-emergence in the region. (Paragraph 40)

11.There is a high risk that the expansion of the PYD/YPG will result in new conflict in the region. Turkey has already moved militarily against the group. The Syrian government has threatened to do so. But the PYD/YPG has not been included in any way in the Geneva negotiations, which the UK supports as the sole way of resolving the Syrian civil war and determining the future of that country. Their absence is notable, given the extent of the PYD/YPG’s territorial and military influence in northern and eastern Syria, its apparent degree of popular legitimacy, and its claim to support democratic values. The FCO should clarify:

i)whether, given that the decision of who to invite to Geneva is ultimately that of the United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, the FCO sees merit in recommending, either unilaterally or with its allies in the international community, to Mr de Mistura the inclusion of the PYD/YPG in order to avert future fighting and to ensure improved representation at the talks for the population of northern Syria.

ii)whether Turkey is blocking the diplomatic inclusion of the PYD/YPG.

iii)what level of engagement it has had, or plans to have, with the de-facto local administration in northern Syria. (Paragraph 41)

9 February 2018