Shayan Talabany is Head of Programmes at the Conservative Middle East Council.
Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq was struck by five rockets on Monday evening. For those who don’t know, “pro-Iranian militia rockets fired on Northern Iraq” sounds like yet another sadly recurrent news headline describing life in the Middle East.
But for those who do know, the sadness remains, and shock and confusion follow. The Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) has long been described as a ‘safe haven’ amid the chaos of the Middle East. Rocket attacks are not a common feature of life in the KRI: I would know, I lived there for nearly ten years.
As an Iraqi-Kurdish Briton, the KRI is my second home. I often tell friends here in the UK that I feel safer as a young woman in Erbil or Sulaymaniyah walking or driving around alone at night then I ever would in London. Shopkeepers leave their fruits and goods outside overnight; cars and bicycles are left unlocked; foreigners and locals walk around freely and safely. In some other reality, its snow-capped mountains, and lush greenery would be ideal tourist attractions.
But as I write this, I worry and fret for my friends, family and former colleagues in the KRI. I grew up on stories of war, famine, and even genocide that my family and others like mine endured under Saddam Hussein’s regime. But Kurds in Iraq quickly grew accustomed to a new relative safety and normality in the region they carved out and protected post-2003 intervention. That is the Kurdistan I have come to know and love for most of my life, I do not want to see it change.
You could argue that one or two rocket attacks a year for the KRI are likely inevitable given its geographic location, wider instability in Iraq, and its Iranian and Turkish neighbours. But you’d be wrong to overlook the severity of Monday’s events.
Pro-Iranian militias have said they are behind Monday night’s attack, and I write this article because I doubt it will be the last of its kind.
Iran can only get away with what it does while Iraq’s institutions remain weak, its borders porous, and its relationship with the Kurdish region edgy – though the KRI is not without fault; its fragmented internal politics and years of economic mismanagement are also to blame.
But the global coalition against Daesh showcased an increasingly effective approach in Iraq to a problem that was faced head on, collectively. Why can’t we take that one step further? And apply that to the rest of our Iraq approach? The West are trying to come up with a much-needed clear Iran policy to prevent attacks like these across the region, but more than ever we need an Iraq policy too.
The UK in particular needs to realise the vast untapped sway it holds in the region and fill a vacuum left by a Biden administration that seems to have so far left out Iraq from its Middle East agenda.
During recent years, big regional players such as Turkey and Iran have strengthened their grip on both the Kurdish region and wider Iraq respectively, both politically and economically. No doubt those relationships will have to be maintained, in a good and neighbourly fashion. But there is a need for those in Westminster to do more to support both Iraq, and the West’s strongest and most loyal allies in the region, the Kurds.
Prior to Monday evening’s attack, Iranian-backed militia groups in Iraq had threatened to target Erbil in retaliation to Turkish incursion. For the Iranian’s and Turks – the KRI is just another battleground; for me and my family, its very existence as a sanctuary in such a volatile region has come after decades of bloodshed, tears, and war. Many, including British troops, fought hard for that little enclave of peace. Sadly, Monday night was a reminder to Kurds in Iraq, and the Kurdish government and political parties that any security or stability they have carved out is fickle and fragile.
The UK can encourage its regional allies in the KRI and Baghdad to hash out their issues and stand stronger together, in the meantime supporting better internal frameworks in the KRI to ensure political pluralism, continuity and stability. It can and should empower and encourage those who can curb Iranian and Turkish ambitions to make Iraq their battleground or bounty. A stronger Iraq, and a peaceful and stable KRI can do that.
More UK presence and Western support will send a strong signal that Iraq and the Kurdish region will not be left to disintegrate in the hands of provocateurs. It will also keep local officials and government under more checks and balances. Ultimately, a more pro-active Iraq policy will also save us having to deal with the messy aftermath of past and current negligence.
The Kurdish Regional Government (KRI) is not perfect, like many of its neighbours in the region; work needs to be done to encourage democratic values and economic and political government transparency – the current leadership is at best mediocre.
But, for the near ten years I lived in the KRI, not once did I think I’d be better off anywhere else in the Middle East. There is a whole pool of young people who, despite their circumstances, are more inspiring, educated, and globally connected than ever, both in Kurdistan and wider Iraq. The best policy we can have is to nurture them and provide them with opportunities and a future to live out their vision. The first logical step is to maintain the little safety and stability they have already, which came under threat on Monday night.
The UK has a long history in Iraq and, though in the last two decades Britons would probably have preferred not to have been so-involved in this messy, complex part of the world, the Kurdistan region of Iraq should be an exception, with all its faults and flaws (and no doubt there are many), it is the best thing that came out of the 2003 Iraq war. We should try and keep it that way.
That recent history – the 2003 intervention – fundamentally changed the balances of sectarian and political power in the Middle East. We cannot properly understand the emergence of Daesh, or the pro-Iranian-militias and their subsequent rocket strikes without understanding the events of post-invasion Iraq and recognising the need to set a realistic policy track.
A real approach to tackling Iraq’s problems would fit in nicely with everything else we are trying to tackle in the region: Iraq and the KRI are essential to understanding Iran’s changing activities and influence in the region, as well as Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman grand plans. Meanwhile, they sadly remain a crucible of both Sunni and Shiite Islamist extremism: have we forgotten all the Britons joining ISIS in Iraq and Syria? Don’t we want to prevent that in the future? In light of the new US administration, all these issues become even more pertinent to Western democracies.
If the UK is keen on making a difference in the Middle East, why not start with Iraq – and with the Kurds in Iraq? The UK needs to stop looking for direction, and instead decide to set it. That, if anything, is what Global Britain should be about.