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16 May 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 11:56am

Sykes-Picot denied the Kurds a nation – there is still time to reverse that injustice

It was a different age and one that has gone, but our involuntary incorporation into what became Iraq has been a source of great misery for the Kurds.

By Karwan Jamal Tahir

You’ll be hearing a lot this week about Sykes-Picot, a secret agreement signed by British and French diplomats 100 years ago. It aimed to carve up the collapsing Ottoman Empire between France and Britain but was overtaken by events. For us Kurds it has come to symbolise the decision to deny Kurds nationhood and to force us to be part of Iraq.

It was a different age and one that has gone. But our involuntary incorporation into what became Iraq has been a source of great misery for the Kurds. It may have looked like a good idea from afar for the Kurds to balance Shia and Sunni communities and for our more mountainous, water-rich and verdant geography to complement the hotter deserts of the south.

But the Kurds, who are not Arabs, were never really welcome as equals in the new Iraq. We were either neglected or repressed. That repression led to Saddam Hussein’s genocide at the end of the 20th century and our successful eviction of the genocidal dictatorship from most of the Kurdistan Region in 1991.

We only survived the Baathist backlash because Britain and other great powers set up a no-fly zone under which we managed to begin building a new autonomous region. Yet when Iraq was liberated, as we see it, from Saddam Hussein we decided to throw in our lot with Iraq and seek to make it work.

We helped put together functioning governments in Baghdad and Kurds supplied people for key posts such as Foreign Minister and President, as is still the case for a largely ceremonial position. We achieved a decent democratic and federal constitution in 2005 and it was endorsed by 80% of the people in a referendum. But it has been more like Stalin’s Soviet constitution of 1936 – great in theory and ignored in practice. Time and time again, we have been denied our rights. We never received our share of the budget and arms and training were denied to our Peshmerga, although officially recognised as part of the Iraqi defence forces.

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All our budget entitlements were halted in 2014 at the whim of the then Iraqi Prime Minister, who even denied Turkish ministers the right to visit our capital, Erbil on one occasion. We tried to get a revenue-sharing agreement back and the deal worked for a few weeks. We now rely on our own independent oil exports and are trying to diversify the economy so we are not so reliant on oil whose prices have plummeted.

A decade of broken promises by Baghdad has now been added to nearly a century of repression. It is also clear that Iraq fell apart in 2014 when Daesh suddenly captured a third of Iraq. We had been warning for many months of the rise of the extremist organisation in Mosul. We specifically warned the Iraqi Prime Minister that it was about to be taken but he told us to mind our own business.

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We will help take back Mosul but how that is done will be very important in reassuring Sunnis that they will not once again be ignored or repressed by a Shia dominated government in Baghdad – the cause of disaffection which drove many Sunnis into thinking that Daesh was the least worse option than Baghdad.

We must be candid and realistic. We tried to make Iraq work but were spurned. We certainly want to be independent not just to fly a flag but because sovereignty will give us more ability to solve our basic problems. But we will still share a space with the rest of Iraq and insist that the divorce is amicable. It is time for Kurdistan Region and Federal Government to honestly start negotiating this issue, and we will need to enter into agreements with Baghdad on water, economics, security and much more.

We may even end up in some sort of confederation. We may well find that we get on better as neighbours rather than reluctant subjects. Anniversaries have a neatness in history but the reality is bound to be more complex. It will take time and we will ask our friends in Britain, Europe, America, Turkey and Iran to help us. But the game is up for the old Iraq as much as the days when diplomats could decide the fates of other peoples at the stroke of a pen.

Karwan Jamal Tahir is Kurdistan Regional Government High Representative to the UK. He tweets @KarwanTahir