It has been said that history does not repeat itself but it does rhyme. For Iraq's Kurds, nothing could be farther from the truth. Twenty-five years ago, during the early hours of March 16, 1988, Iraqi warplanes flew over the city of Halabja and dropped a series of bombs that unleashed a vile stench of burning almonds in the air. Almost immediately, entire families began dropping dead. It was later said that Saddam Hussein had used chemical weapons "against his own people," but the Kurds of Iraq were not his people. At 30 million strong across the Middle East, they are the largest nation in the world without a state. Today, with their autonomous region in northern Iraq witnessing unprecedented growth and development, the Kurds once again have their eyes on independence. Within a decade, they may just get it.
Twenty seven nations have established a consulate in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), and Canada is about to join them. Unfortunately, Ottawa has been focusing its efforts – rather belatedly – at charming the Baghdad government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, just as relations between Mr. al-Maliki and the KRG have deteriorated. The time has now come for Canada to establish a fully fledged partnership with Iraqi Kurdistan, a nation that shares our values and interests. A shift in policy would anger Baghdad and rankle Washington, but would give Canada a friendly, pro-Western, prospering ally in a region beset with instability.
Unfortunately, Canada has decided to double-down on ties with Iraq. Then-immigration minister Jason Kenney's surprise visit to Baghdad in March marked the first time a Canadian cabinet minister visited Iraq in 37 years, and Foreign Minister John Baird's announcement of a diplomatic office in Baghdad came a full decade after Saddam's overthrow. Not only is Canada far behind the competition, it is wooing the wrong players.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Anfal Campaign. Saddam Hussein's genocidal answer to the Kurdish Question took nearly 200,000 lives and forced the Kurds to retreat to their mountains, from which they fought a guerilla war against Saddam led by their secular leaders,
Massoud Barzani, the current President of the KRG, and Jalal Talabani, the first democratically elected president of Iraq. In 1991, exactly two decades before the Arab Spring enraptured a generation of Arabs, the Kurds rose up again, only to be crushed once more.
Fast-forward to 2013, the contrast could not be more stark: Construction sites dot Kurdistan's streets; Japanese cars zip down paved boulevards; luxury hotels tower over Erbil; sleek malls and cafes are filled with young Kurds co-mingling as the Kurdish flag flies above their heads. There has not been a single foreign casualty in Kurdistan since 2003. Erbil's glistening new airport reminds foreigners that they are in the 'other Iraq,' free of sectarianism and peril. This Other Iraq is inching towards independence, as the KRG's de facto Foreign Minister Falah Mustafa Bakir told me last week. The Kurds "have volunteered," he emphasized, "to stay within a federalist, pluralist, democratic Iraq as equal partners." With neither federalism nor pluralism nor democracy taking meaningful shape, Mr. Falah cautioned that "other avenues" would be pursued if the situation did not improve with Baghdad.
Indeed, alternative roads are already being travelled. Major oil companies, including large Canadian firms, have entered the Kurdish region, circumventing and aggravating Baghdad, which claims it has exclusive jurisdiction over oil negotiations. An estimated 45 billion barrels of oil lay beneath the Kurds' feet and a pipeline connecting Kurdistan to Turkey is nearly complete. When finished, it will give Kurdistan the ability to ship at least 400,000 barrels of oil a day and, by 2019, the KRG expects to export two million BPD. Kurdistan not only provides generous profit-sharing agreements with oil companies but also exempts new investment and businesses from taxation for ten years. This would explain last year's astronomical growth rate of 12 per cent, outpacing even China.
Canada has been late to the scramble for Kurdistan. The security situation in Iraq will only worsen, so Ottawa should to take a moral and strategic stand and establish a partnership with Iraqi Kurdistan. Closer ties with Kurdistan would square well with Stephen Harper's values-based foreign policy and Iraq's Kurds would welcome a major Western country shifting its attention away from Iraq. Beyond Israel and a few Gulf states, Canada has few friends in the Middle East, and a partnership with the Kurds would burnish Canadian soft power, contribute to our GDP growth, and give Canada a new, pro-Western partner in the region.
From a scorched and poisoned landscape, the Kurds are rising up once again. It's about time Ottawa noticed.
Omer Aziz (@omeraziz12) is a Commonwealth and Pitt Scholar of International Relations at Cambridge University.