Three cheers for John Major and his intervention in the Middle East

We in the West do our friends no favours by believing we can never do the right thing. Next week is the 25th anniversary of the no-fly zone that protected the Iraqi Kurds

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The Independent Online

A letter-writer in a national magazine in Britain recently demanded one example of a good British intervention in the Middle East. My reply cited two: the liberation of Kuwait and the no-fly zone over the Kurdistan region. Tuesday 5 April is the 25th anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 688 which enabled the no-fly zone and protected the Kurds for 12 years. 

Two million Kurds who fled from Saddam Hussein's air force to the mountains overlooking Turkey and Iran then returned home from their frozen and barren eyrie to rebuild society. British public opinion was crucial in answering appeals for blankets and food and encouraging British action. My small role was helping persuade Iran to provide a 747 to take such supplies to the Kurds. 

The British Prime Minister, John Major, was also shocked and persuaded his Cabinet to support action – by coincidence on Kurdish new year in 1991 – and then took the lead internationally. He deserves credit for persuading George HW Bush's reluctant administration to police the zone despite enforcing aircraft being shot at almost every day by Saddam.

The current Chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Kurdistan Region, Jason McCartney MP, was an RAF officer who visited Kurdish villages to reassure people that overhead planes were friendly. Those who served have every reason to be proud of what they did.

The Kurds had every reason to fear Saddam would resume his genocidal campaign. Instead, they were able to embrace democracy, and establish many new universities. Despite the harsh impact of sanctions enforced by the UN and by Saddam, and their own bloody civil war, they laid the foundations for a dynamic society that took off when Saddam was overthrown in 2003. Both Sir John Major and Tony Blair are widely revered in the Kurdistan region.

This success story should make those who believe that our involvement with Iraq has been an unmitigated disaster think again. Liberal intervention averted genocide and saved the Kurds. They now play a pivotal role in helping roll back Daesh, whose forces face them along a 650 mile front with daily fighting. The Kurds have, with western air strikes, secured their territory and will help push against Daesh in Mosul. 

But their biggest enemy is now what one Kurdistani MP calls their economic heart attack. The cost of war and the strain of hosting nearly two million refugees and internally displaced people have combined in a perfect storm with the oil price slump, and an unsympathetic government in Baghdad cutting off budget payments.

Vast and fast economic growth has spluttered to a halt with civil servants enduring pay arrears and cuts. The cranes on city skylines that once symbolised massive investment in infrastructure are still while unemployment and poverty have soared.

In 10 years of fact-finding visits to Kurdistan, I have seen a massive disconnect in attitudes to liberal intervention between Kurdistan and the UK. The Kurds will fight for their survival and will get through, having suffered much worse in their history. They share western values of democracy, tolerance and pluralism – though they have major political divisions to overcome in unpromising conditions – and they embraced British intervention. Many British people despair about such intervention because they see it through the prism of the Iraq war in 2003 – deemed a disaster here but a liberation in Kurdistan.

The lack of appetite for interventions including, if necessary, the use of combat troops will prolong the rule of Daesh. In an over-reaction to Iraq 2003 we are neglecting the great good we did in 1991 and in 2003, despite the errors of the occupation, and could yet do.

We need a nuanced approach to British foreign policy in the Middle East rather than cherry-picking to sustain a general theory. I could, for example, focus on Sykes-Picot, the secret agreement between representatives of British and French imperialism that led through twists and turns to denying Kurdish nationhood, and selfishly carving up countries. Or how great powers cynically used Kurds as pawns in the Cold War. Or how the West saw the monstrous Iran-Iraq war as one between two four-letter countries that they hoped would exhaust each other. Or the willingness, even when Saddam's genocide was known, to sell arms to Iraq. In the balance, however, must be the decision to save the Kurds.

The anniversary allows us to reflect on that and on how to help the Kurds we saved to save themselves, and on how to construct stronger secular politics and economic dynamism that can defeat Daesh, and ensure it is not reinvented in some new form. Major's successors should also be brave and far-sighted. The West does our friends no favours by believing we can never do the right thing.

Gary Kent is director of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Kurdistan Region. This article is adapted from Rudaw, the Kurdish media network

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