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Foreign Affairs Committee

Volume 636: debated on Thursday 22 February 2018

Select Committee Statement

When you do those introductions, Mr Speaker, I keep waiting for you to say “No hesitation, repetition or deviation”, but I am afraid I cannot make that commitment today.

This is the third report by the Foreign Affairs Committee this Parliament, and I am proud to present it to the House. I think it addresses an important aspect of our foreign policy that, sadly, has often been overlooked by the United Kingdom for many years: the aspiration of the Kurdish people.

Britain has a long and historic connection to the Kurdish people that goes back well over a century. Our relationship with them during our period of governing Iraq, and later with the air policing role that we conducted over Iraq in the ’90s, demonstrates that we have recognised and on many occasions had an appropriate commitment to the Kurdish people. That is made particularly relevant by Turkey’s recent attacks on Kurdish positions near Afrin, which in recent weeks have been deeply concerning. Those attacks are a continuation of a long struggle between Ankara and the various Kurdish groups, but they are also a new departure. On one side is NATO’s second largest army, and on the other, a militia that is backed by the alliance’s largest.

Those recent events have highlighted the relevance of the Committee’s work, and I thank all those who were key to this inquiry, especially all right hon. and hon. Members of the Committee. Those included—they deserve a mention—my hon. Friends the Members for Wealden (Ms Ghani) and for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi). Their elevation to ministerial greatness has removed them from citation in the report, but they were very important to many elements of its production and it would be wrong to overlook their contributions.

Our inquiry considered the aftermath of the war against Daesh, during which those fighting the extremists shared an enemy but often held competing visions for what should follow its defeat. Kurdish groups were among those fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria. They played their part in the military victory and were supported by a global coalition, including us here in the United Kingdom. Their success led them to significantly expand their territory in both countries. That expansion has, in turn, raised tensions with regional Governments. In October last year, after Iraqi Kurds held a referendum that voted in favour of independence, the federal forces re-took most of the territory that the Kurds had taken off ISIS. In January, Turkey began the ongoing offensive against predominantly Kurdish forces in the Afrin region of northern Syria. Our report warned that new fighting, or a complication of the conflicts already under way, was indeed probable, and the Kurdish elements empowered by the war against Daesh are likely to be involved. Yesterday’s victories risk causing tomorrow’s wars.

These tensions have pitted some of the UK’s leading allies against each other, not only the Turks and the Americans, who are so intimately involved on both sides, but the forces on the ground. Moreover, they have caused new suffering for the people of the regions, whose severe humanitarian situation the UK has worked with partners to relieve. They have given another cause for fighting in the region, whose instability threatens the United Kingdom through a proliferation of weapons and violent ideologies. The Kurdish groups told us that they shared the democratic and inclusive values of the United Kingdom, but national Governments frequently described those Kurdish groups as a danger to the region. The United Kingdom’s military support for the Kurdish fighters opposing ISIS emphasises the stake we have in these conflicts and the role we play in helping to resolve them.

Our report examined the aspirations of specific Kurdish elements in Iraq and Syria, and suggested what the response of the United Kingdom should be. In Iraq, Kurdish elements held a referendum in September 2017. They voted overwhelmingly in favour of independence. They did so in the face of opposition from Baghdad, regional states and the international community. They unilaterally included territories that the Kurds had taken from Daesh, but whose governance was disputed by Baghdad. That left them open to accusations of a land-grab.

We praised the work of the Foreign Office in trying to avert the referendum and in seeking to find an alternative way of fulfilling Kurdish aspirations. The FCO told us that, while it could potentially accept any outcome—including independence for the Kurds—that was negotiated consensually with the Government of Iraq, its preference would be for the Kurdistan region to remain in a united Iraq. But the overwhelming vote in favour of independence showed deep frustration and dissatisfaction with the region’s place in Iraq. Many Kurds feel imprisoned in a country that they see as not implementing its commitments of equality to them.

The deep differences between the sides have raised the risk of war. We recommended that the FCO should write to the Government of Iraq, formally offering itself in an enhanced role of facilitating dialogue. We asked that it be prepared to criticise both sides when criticism was due, because it had little to say to us about some of the issues underpinning the tensions. We said that the FCO should press the Government of Iraq to lift the restrictions placed on the Kurdistan region of Iraq after the referendum, most notably on air travel. It should also set out its assessment of the role of Shi’a militias in the reacquisition of the disputed territories and whether reports of crimes being committed by them are credible. It should explain whether it sees Iran as supporting or controlling the militias. For the Kurdistan region, the FCO should speak out against signs of corruption, the monopolisation of power or the curtailment of democracy. It should encourage political reform and economic diversification. These are issues that affect the whole of Iraq, undermining its reconstruction and threatening the viability of its future as a diverse but united country.

For Syria, our report focused on the People’s Protection Units—the so-called YPG—the armed group that is the target of Turkey’s current operation in Afrin. Its role as the armed wing of the Democratic Union party—the PYD—means that the two are often referred to as the PYD/YPG, a single, predominantly Kurdish entity. Since 2015, it has operated as part of a coalition called the Syrian Democratic Forces, or—ready for another one?—the SDF. The SDF includes non-Kurdish elements, but the PYD/YPG is the pre-eminent component.

Behind these TLAs—sorry, I mean three-letter acronyms —lie significant policy challenges with deep implications for the United Kingdom. The YPG, PYD and SDF are not just names—or letters—but an armed force and a political project that now encompasses more than a quarter of Syria. Their rise to that position was rapid, occurring in just over four years, as they led to the defeat of ISIS on the ground. That defeat was achieved with military support from the UK, the United States and others. The Americans provided weapons to the SDF and the YPG. The UK Government say they did not, but the RAF did carry out airstrikes to clear ISIS from its way. As such, we concluded that the expansion of the same group that Turkey is now attacking was likely assisted by the UK.

The PYD says that it does not seek independence from Syria, but it has helped to declare and administer a self-governing region in the areas of the country it now controls. The group described this region as being based on values of democracy and inclusivity that the UK should support, but Turkey’s account of the group and its self-declared region could not be more different. This leaves the UK caught between its two leading NATO allies. The US sees the SDF, of which the YPG is the main part, as its leading local ally against Daesh, but Turkey regards the YPG not only as an abuser of human rights but as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ party, or PKK. It therefore sees the PYD and the YPG as a threat to its national security.

We asked the Foreign Office to explain its position and policy regarding the serious differences in approach between two of the UK’s leading allies. Like Turkey, the UK defines the PKK as a terrorist organisation; unlike Turkey, it does not apply that designation to the PYD or YPG. The evidence to our inquiry clearly argued that these organisations were linked, with the nature and extent of those links being debatable—some claimed they were remote, others that they were indeed the same organisation. The FCO’s view, however, was incoherent. Its statements referred to reported links between them, as though it had no clear view of its own, which is simply not credible. The UK is providing military might to one party in this conflict, and the Foreign Office should be clear on the nature of the group receiving military air support. It cannot have a clear policy unless it has a clear view on this fundamental dispute.

The extent to which the UK engages diplomatically with the PYD and supports the group’s inclusion in the Geneva peace talks will have deep implications for relations with the UK’s leading allies in the region. It will also have implications for whether a negotiated end can be brought to Syria’s conflict or whether the war will become yet more complicated and prolonged. Having supported the SDF, and therefore the YPG, militarily during the war against Daesh, the Foreign Office should now clarify whether it will continue to do so and whether it will engage diplomatically with the territory that the UK has helped the group to win.

I pay tribute to the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. The events in Afrin kicked off only very late into our inquiry and so get only a fleeting mention in the report. Will he tell the House, therefore, what he thinks the Foreign Office should be doing to try to resolve that dispute between Turkey and northern Syria, and how can it help to get the Geneva peace talks back on track?

I welcome the contribution of my hon. Friend, which he is, to the report—it was a full Committee effort to which everyone contributed enormously—and thank him for reminding me of an area I have not covered. The Foreign Office, of course, has an important role to play. We have supported one of the parties militarily and are an extremely close ally of the Turkish Republic. It is incumbent on us and our excellent Foreign Office staff in the region to seek to help that dialogue progress. Only through dialogue can this conflict be ended and a peace process begun, and Her Majesty’s Government are extremely well placed to make sure that happens.

I put on record our thanks to the Committee for its hard work in preparing the report. Thanks to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and the team, the statement has come to the Floor of the House. I thank you for ensuring that that has happened—it is both timely and extremely informative. I reassure the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee that I will pass on the comments made by him and others to the Foreign Secretary and my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East, and that the Foreign Office commits to responding to the report in due course.

I welcome the Minister’s words. Very few of us here do not respect enormously the work of the Minister for the Middle East. His work, influence and knowledge of the region is second to none.

Is it not about time that we made stronger representations through the NATO Parliamentary Assembly that one of our allies is spending huge resource in attacking potentially one of our other allies in the battle against Daesh?

I very much welcome the NATO Parliamentary Assembly’s work, and the hon. Gentleman is right that that is an excellent forum for discussion. However, I should say that the Turkish Government have not only the right, but the duty to protect their population against terrorist attacks and, if they feel threatened, it is incumbent on them to take action. I would much rather see both parties separating, so that we do not see conflict and the peace process can begin, with different groups not engaged in immediate battles.

I praise my hon. Friend for his statement and commend his Committee for its report. He is setting a very good example to other Chairs of Select Committees, who really ought to come to the House on Thursdays to present their reports. Is not the truth about the Kurds that British foreign policy towards them has been wrong for about 100 years? They were abandoned by us in 1918; we ignored them in the treaty of Versailles; and the problem has persisted ever since. Is it not true that, without the Kurds, ISIS would not have been defeated? We now face the extraordinary scenario where the Assad regime is backing the Kurds against the Turks in northern Syria. Given the fact that Turkey has an enormous border with Syria, will this not be an enormous problem for the international community to solve?

I am extremely grateful for my hon. Friend’s kind words. I have been clear since the time that I was elected to chair the Committee that I answer to the whole House, not just the Committee. I therefore feel that it is my responsibility and not a choice—it is simply a duty—to respond to the House and to be available to respond on anything that we have covered.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: Britain’s history has not been good. We must not forget the air policing, as it was then called. The then Colonial Secretary, one Winston Churchill, was the first person to use chemical weapons against the Kurds. Indeed, it was the RAF that dropped them. One reason that the RAF still exists is that it cut the cost of colonial policing by reducing the number of battalions required. I am afraid that that is true—we do not always have a glorious history.

The truth is that our role today is as a peacemaker and as an engaged friend of the whole region. In that, we should recognise that the Kurdish people have the right to self-determination, and we do recognise that, but we should encourage them to stay as part of the Republic of Iraq in the areas where they are within Iraq. Many witnesses we spoke to said that, although the referendum had called for independence, they were looking for greater autonomy within the Republic of Iraq, so there is more tension within the Kurdish position than appears immediately obvious. It is, of course, a tragedy that Syria remains governed by such a barbarous dictator and it is a great shame that he is being supported by so many around the world. The fact that he is now supporting Kurds to take on another NATO ally does not make us any happier.

I congratulate the Chair of the Committee and its members for their comprehensive report. On page 5, paragraph 3, it states:

“The evidence given to us was clear: future conflicts were probable, and Kurdish groups would likely be involved.”

Political events in Kurdistan-controlled areas and Turkey’s interactions have clearly cast a spell over the whole area. Did the Committee consider that Kurdish regional autonomy may be obstructed by Turkey, which is very obvious? However, is it possible that Iraq and Syria may consider it an option? Is it too late to give the Kurdish people the hope, vision and goal that they seek and deserve? Is it possible to move Kurdish regional autonomy from being aspirational to being practical?

Part of the evidence that we received was that Kurdish regional autonomy has been a matter of great debate even within the Kurdistan region itself, and it is not absolutely clear that full independence is sought. There has been an enormous amount of debate about that and indeed some evidence pointed to the fact that greater autonomy in the Republic of Iraq was indeed what most were looking for. We did not look specifically into further details of that, so I will not go much further. I merely repeat that supporting the autonomy of the people of the Kurdish region is important, but so is supporting the Iraqi Government’s right to territorial integrity.

We now come to the second Select Committee statement. Robert Neill will speak on this subject for up to 10 minutes, during which no interventions may be taken, and I shall then call Members to ask him questions in the usual way. I call the Chair of the Justice Committee, Robert Neill.