British MP on the Sykes–Picot: Time to Revisit; Sensitively

ERBIL — As the Kurdistan Region is fast approaching the referendum on its independence, Mike Gapes, a British Labour MP for Ilford South, said that he recently signed a motion to be tabled at the House of Commons, according to which a YES vote “would be a mandate for negotiating statehood and improved co-operation with Iraq.”

In an exclusive interview with BasNews, MP Gapes sheds light on the ties between Erbil and London as well as the latest political and security developments in the region. Concerning the Sykes-Picot agreement after more than a century, the lawmaker believes it is time to revisit these issues.


BasNews: How do you evaluate the current diplomatic relations between the UK and Kurdistan Region?

MG: They are good. Through our Consulate General in Erbil and Embassy in Baghdad we invest heavily in the vibrant partnership that the UK already enjoys with the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, in addition to the UK's relationship with Iraq more generally. 

The UK is providing support through the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and the National School of Government – International. Through our Consulate General in Erbil and our contacts with Kurdish representatives in London, we maintain a regular dialogue with the KRG.  

As the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee stated in our report on UK relations with The Kurdistan Region two years ago:

"The Kurdistan Region of Iraq is a genuine democracy, albeit an imperfect and still developing one, and a beacon of tolerance and moderation in a wider region where extremism and instability are on the rise. Its values are broadly our values. The UK is fortunate to have in such a volatile part of the world a partner as relatively moderate, pragmatic, stable, democratic, secular and reflexively pro-Western as the KRG. It is emphatically in the best interests of the UK that the Kurdistan Region continues on its path of democratic development, and has friends and supporters as it does so, particularly at this time of crisis for the Region, when the progress it has achieved over the last 20 years is under threat. The UK Government should engage with it on that basis. "

In its response to the report the Government said: "The Government endorses the conclusion that the KRG, alongside our relationship with Iraq more generally, is a strategic partner and important for the delivery of UK policy in the region. The UK has a strong and vibrant relationship with the Kurdistan Region of Iraq spanning a wide range of areas. Alongside shared interests in the KRI's stability and development, these links are the foundation of the healthy relationship we enjoy today. We are working to strengthen commercial, cultural and educational links between the UK and Iraqi Kurds. This is a genuine partnership, involving the private and other sectors, as well as direct engagement between the KRG and HMG. ". 


The Kurdistan Regional Government deserves credit for swiftly directing the Peshmerga to occupy Kirkuk and other disputed areas of northern Iraq at a moment of crisis in June 2014.


BasNews: The UK is a state member of the anti-Islamic State international coalition, and the Kurdish Peshmerga forces have been one of the most effective fighters on the ground. How do you see Peshmerga’s engagement in the victories so far made against the extremist group?

MG: The Kurdistan Regional Government deserves credit for swiftly directing the Peshmerga to occupy Kirkuk and other disputed areas of northern Iraq at a moment of crisis in June 2014. It also played an important, indeed vital role elsewhere in Iraq and Syria. The Peshmerga military contribution to international efforts to counter Daesh has been substantial. The UK government has gifted weapons, and trained over 1000 Kurdish Security Forces (KSF)


BasNews: Kurdistan Region has set an independence referendum on 25th September. Referring to the voice of the people is the core of democracy whilst some of the democratic countries insist on delaying this referendum in the Kurdistan Region. Don’t you thing such a position against the will of people could be interpreted as distancing from the democratic values?

MG: The KRG is right to insist on adherence to the Iraqi constitution, and to vote on the status of the disputed territories finally going ahead. 

I am one of the signatories of the following Early Day motion which was tabled in the House of Commons recently.   

Referendum in the Kurdistan Region

"That this House supports the right to self-determination of the people of the Kurdistan Region in Iraq; and recognises that a yes vote in their referendum on independence on 25 September 2017 would be a mandate for negotiating statehood and improved co-operation with Iraq".


The issue of self determination is a complex one.


BasNews: The world has witnessed that Kurds make sacrifices to protect democratic values. When the international community will be persuaded to help them with their right of self-determination?

MG: The Kurdistan Regional Government and the people of the Region have also responded with generosity and sacrifice to the influx of hundreds of thousands of displaced people from Syria and Iraq. 


BasNews: The international law, since 1960s, defend people’s right to self-determination. Why do you think some of the countries, especially western states, attempt to avoid abiding by those laws?

MG: The issue of self determination is a complex one. And many countries have their own internal separatist movements or internal ethnic, religious or linguistic divisions.  


BasNews: The UK, alike some other Western countries, insists on a one-Iraq policy. Is this your government’s final position on the current situation in Iraq and Kurdistan Region?

MG: The most recent position of the British Government was set out in a statement by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson on 17 June 2017. He said: "We note the announcement by the government of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq regarding a referendum on independence. We understand the aspirations of the Kurdish people and continue to support them politically, culturally and economically within Iraq. But a referendum at this time will distract from the more urgent priorities of defeating Daesh, stabilising liberated areas and addressing the long-term political issues that led to Daesh’s rise. Any referendum or political process towards independence must be agreed with the Government of Iraq in Baghdad. Unilateral moves towards independence would not be in the interests of the people of Kurdistan Region, Iraq or of wider regional stability.

The UK supports a stable, democratic and unified Iraq, one that is able to provide the security, jobs and healthcare and education all Iraqis want and deserve. We urge all parties to engage in dialogue to deliver a better future for their people on the basis of the Iraqi Constitution."   

I see no immediate prospect of a change in that position.  

But I would hope that the UK and its international partners should stand ready to help ensure that any clear expression of will in favour of independence, and on reasonable terms, is accepted and respected. 


I believe that it is time to revisit these issues but the international community must do so in a sensitive and careful way.


BasNews: The UK, together with France, made The Sykes–Picot Agreement in 1916, as the result of which Kurds were divided between four new states. Don’t you think that Kurds would pay the price again for the UK’s — and others’ — policy of holding Iraq together if these countries prevent them from independence?

MG: I believe that it is time to revisit these issues but the international community must do so in a sensitive and careful way. Recent decades have shown that state boundaries in Europe, as in Czechoslovakia peacefully and in Yugoslavia after a civil war can be changed, and of course in contrast Germany was peacefully reunited. And the people of Scotland chose in their referendum on self determination in 2014 to stay in the United Kingdom. Elsewhere the experiences of South Sudan and Yemen show that boundary changes do not necessarily improve the situation. What is far more important is the development of a democratic and inclusive political culture with a recognition of the legitimacy of political opposition and the rule of law.  


BasNews: Many believe that compelling Kurds, Iraqi Sunni Arabs and Shi’ite Arabs together within the current borders of Iraq only to preserve unity of the country, helps continued conflicts and war. What is your opinion on that?

MG: As the report of our Foreign Affairs Select Committee published in January 2015 made clear "It is rational to be concerned about the possible consequences of Iraq's break-up. But the Kurdistan Region's desire for increased self-governance, or even independence, is itself rational, given its economic potential and demonstrable capacity for effective self-governance, and also understandable, given its recent history. " In my opinion it will be very important that both Erbil and Baghdad and all communities and religions work closely together in future for issues of mutual concern. That will be even more necessary after the outcome of the referendum in September.