Commentary Magazine


Topic: Masoud Barzani

Should Kurds Still Seek Iraq’s Presidency?

Masoud Barzani, the head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the leader of the Kurdistan Regional Government, has officially nominated Barham Salih, a life-long member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), to be Iraq’s new president.

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Masoud Barzani, the head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the leader of the Kurdistan Regional Government, has officially nominated Barham Salih, a life-long member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), to be Iraq’s new president.

Barham is a capable politician, a former minister of planning for Iraq, and is popular among many journalists and officials in the United Kingdom and Washington D.C., where he had been based for decades. He has carefully cultivated an image as a reformist and, indeed, probably aspires to be one although during his time in power, he was unable to overcome impediments put in his path by Barzani and others. Importantly, against the backdrop of Iraqi realpolitik Barham has also won Iran’s confidence to preside over the largely ceremonial position. Barzani’s decision to nominate Barham ends months of internal infighting, especially within the PUK because Hero Khan, the current first lady of Iraq who is also a PUK power broker and a gatekeeper to PUK finances, absolutely despises Barham for reasons both real and imagined.

Being nominated by Barzani and assuming the Iraqi presidency are two different things, however. The nature of Iraq’s constitution means that the president, prime minister, and speaker of the parliament will often be decided together as part of a package meant to assuage various political (and ethnic, and sectarian) constituencies.

Kurdish officials insist Iraq’s presidency should be reserved for a Kurd. That ultimately is a decision for Iraqis—Arab and Kurd alike—but the assumption does condemn Iraq to a sort of Lebanon-style confessionalism where religion and, in Iraq’s case, ethnicity mean more than ability. Nevertheless, after years of oppressions, Kurds seek the symbolism of holding the Iraqi presidency, even if the power of the presidency is less than that of the speakership of the parliament.

Barzani’s nomination of Barham for the presidency right now, less than a week after Barzani called for a referendum on Iraqi Kurdistan independence, raises some very real questions, however, about the future of the Kurds inside Iraq and Barzani’s true intentions. After all, it is unclear why any Iraqi Arab would accept an Iraqi Kurd (or at least an Iraqi Kurd from the provinces which together form the Kurdistan Regional Government) for the presidency of their country when Kurds could within months move down the path to complete independence. Barham has always handled his dual roles in Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan well, but it is unclear how he can or should hold the presidency while the political party in which he is an activist if not the major policy-setter seeks at the same time Iraq’s division.

I have often argued that Barzani has treated Kurdish nationalism more as a policy tool to be wielded against his opponents rather than a sincerely-held belief and been the target of opprobrium by many of those surrounding Barzani because of it. I base my argument on historical evidence: After all, in 1996, he invited Saddam Hussein into his capital Erbil. It seemed that Barzani prioritized maintaining power against Kurdish rivals (including, at the time, Barham’s party) over the risk of losing all Kurdish autonomy to a man like Saddam who had conducted genocide against the Kurdish people and, indeed, had murdered 8,000 members of Barzani’s tribe just years earlier.

More recently, Barzani has allied himself with Turkey against Kurds seeking autonomy or federalism in both Turkey and Syria, again because those Kurds follow political leadership which does not subordinate itself to Barzani’s more tribal model of power and because they look to other Kurdish leaders beyond Barzani for their future. Perhaps I am wrong, however.

Still, it was noteworthy that, when speaking before his rubber-stamp parliament last week, Barzani did not offer a date for a referendum, again suggesting Barzani was treating nationalism as a political tool rather than a personal goal. And while Kurds across Iraqi Kurdistan overwhelmingly seek independence, a complete break with Iraq would mean forfeiting Iraqi Kurdistan’s share of revenue from southern Iraq’s oil fields which produce far more than those than the much-storied but declining fields around Kirkuk. Only time will tell how sincere Barzani is when it comes to prioritizing Kurdish nationalism above the material benefits he derives from remaining a part of Iraq.

However, with the nomination of Barham Salih to be Iraq’s president, it is unclear how Barzani can act simultaneously as a Kurdish nationalist while also seeking to remain a power broker within Iraq proper. The same holds true with Barham Salih, who should tell Iraq’s parliament without ambiguity or delay about where he stands on the issue of Kurdish secession and to which entity, Iraq or independent Kurdistan, his ultimate loyalty would remain.

If Kurds are going to remain in Iraq for the next four years, then they should participate fully in the horse-trading and any political bargains involved in forming the next Iraqi government. But if the Kurds are going to split within weeks or months—and that is their right and the overwhelming desire of their people—then they should make their intentions 100 percent clear now and abandon their demands for the leadership of Iraq proper and push ahead with independence.

The formula for political compromise in Baghdad would be far different if Kurdish leaders from those provinces splitting away did not seek to take any plum positions that might otherwise go to Iraqis—Shi‘ite, Sunni, or anything else—intending to remain a part of Iraq. At the same time, the possibility for Iraqi stability would be far higher if the bargaining to form the next government could move forward with clarity about the Kurdish nationalist intentions rather than creating a situation where, just months into the new government, the Iraqi president, foreign minister, and other cabinet officials simply abandoned their posts in favor of a new country.

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Why Hasn’t Kurdistan Declared Independence?

The only group to benefit from the combined Sunni tribal, Baathist, and Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) uprising against the Iraqi central government has been the Iraqi Kurds. Peshmerga belonging to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan have taken Kirkuk, while peshmerga answering to the Kurdistan Democratic Party have, according to some interlocutors, taken control of the half of Mosul populated by Kurds (Mosul is bisected by a river; Kurds tend to live on one side, Arabs on the other).

Many analysts, for example, Peter Galbraith, have spoken in recent days about Kurds finally achieving their dream of independence. And, certainly, independence is a dream the majority of Kurds hold dear, having been denied a state suggested in the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres and subsequently denied them by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne.

It was the policy of the United States throughout Operation Iraqi Freedom to insist on Iraqi unity, all the while recognizing a strong Kurdish autonomy under the guise of federalism. Kurdistan acted as a de facto independent state: It controlled its own borders, flew its own flag, spoke its own language, had its own parliament, maintained its own intelligence and security forces, etc.

The Kurds, however, still held out for Kirkuk. In a 2001 interview with Middle East Quarterly, Jalal Talabani, then simply the head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and now the president of Iraq, referred to Kirkuk as “the Jerusalem of Kurdistan.” With the uprising against the central government, Iraqi forces evacuated Kirkuk and the Kurds now possess it, as well as other territories they claimed and Kirkuk’s oil. Iraqi Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani, meanwhile, has broken down his traditional animosity toward Turkey and embraced his neighbor to the north in a new partnership revolving around oil and other business dealings. Iraqi Kurdistan now exports oil through Turkey. Kurdistan Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani and Talabani’s son Qubad earlier this week traveled to Tehran, not only to discuss Iraq’s current unrest, but also expand their partnership with Kurdistan’s neighbor to the east so that all eggs aren’t in the Turkish basket.

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The only group to benefit from the combined Sunni tribal, Baathist, and Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) uprising against the Iraqi central government has been the Iraqi Kurds. Peshmerga belonging to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan have taken Kirkuk, while peshmerga answering to the Kurdistan Democratic Party have, according to some interlocutors, taken control of the half of Mosul populated by Kurds (Mosul is bisected by a river; Kurds tend to live on one side, Arabs on the other).

Many analysts, for example, Peter Galbraith, have spoken in recent days about Kurds finally achieving their dream of independence. And, certainly, independence is a dream the majority of Kurds hold dear, having been denied a state suggested in the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres and subsequently denied them by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne.

It was the policy of the United States throughout Operation Iraqi Freedom to insist on Iraqi unity, all the while recognizing a strong Kurdish autonomy under the guise of federalism. Kurdistan acted as a de facto independent state: It controlled its own borders, flew its own flag, spoke its own language, had its own parliament, maintained its own intelligence and security forces, etc.

The Kurds, however, still held out for Kirkuk. In a 2001 interview with Middle East Quarterly, Jalal Talabani, then simply the head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and now the president of Iraq, referred to Kirkuk as “the Jerusalem of Kurdistan.” With the uprising against the central government, Iraqi forces evacuated Kirkuk and the Kurds now possess it, as well as other territories they claimed and Kirkuk’s oil. Iraqi Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani, meanwhile, has broken down his traditional animosity toward Turkey and embraced his neighbor to the north in a new partnership revolving around oil and other business dealings. Iraqi Kurdistan now exports oil through Turkey. Kurdistan Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani and Talabani’s son Qubad earlier this week traveled to Tehran, not only to discuss Iraq’s current unrest, but also expand their partnership with Kurdistan’s neighbor to the east so that all eggs aren’t in the Turkish basket.

Indeed, it does seem to be the Kurdish moment, not only in Iraqi Kurdistan but elsewhere. An autonomous entity has emerged in Syrian Kurdistan. Indeed, today, “Rojava” is the only peaceful, functioning region in Syria. The Turkish government has initiated peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a decades-long insurgency against Turkey. Having recognized PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan effectively as the representative of Turkish Kurds, it will be extremely difficult for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to stop a process that ultimately will result in Öcalan’s release from prison and a federal solution for wide swaths of southeastern Turkey.

The question then becomes why, with all the stars aligned in Kurdistan’s favor, Kurdish President Masoud Barzani hasn’t declared independence? He has always embraced robust Kurdish nationalist rhetoric, and there is nothing stopping him. Should he declare independence, there is little the Iraqi central government could or would do to stop him, and Turks seem to have come to terms with the idea of a Kurdish state as well, so long as it falls outside the borders of Turkey. Nor are there political impediments to Barzani: he is a Middle Eastern strongman in the traditional sense. He controls the parliament, the treasury, and his son runs the intelligence forces. His second and constitutionally last term as president ended several months ago, and yet he still retains his position. In short, if he wanted independence, he could declare it today.

I have long said as an analyst rather than as an advocate that Barzani was not sincere about Kurdish nationalism. Maybe I’m wrong, but increasingly it seems I wasn’t. After all, in 1996, Barzani invited Saddam Hussein’s hated Republican Guard into Erbil, effectively risking Kurdish autonomy for the sake of ensuring bullets in the necks of his Kurdish political opponents. (Today, more than 3,000 Kurds remain “disappeared” from the 1994-1997 Kurdish civil war; neither Barzani nor Talabani have come clean with regard to their fate.) Barzani also seems to prioritize money over nationalism: Kurdistan not only exports its own oil, but received a portion of Iraq’s oil. While Kirkuk is often in the headlines, decades of exploitation and questionable management by Saddam Hussein’s government have left its fields in decline. The bulk—perhaps 70 percent or more—of Iraq’s oil comes from Iraq’s southern oil fields. If Kurdistan separates, Kurdistan loses its subsidies and Barzani no longer is able to maintain the lifestyle for him and his sons to which they have become accustomed.

In every almost meeting with American officials, Kurdish civil society leaders have made the argument for independence. Rather than assume it is the United States holding them back, perhaps it’s time to recognize its their own leaders.

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