Commentary Magazine


Topic: Kurdistan

Turkey and the Turkmen Militia Fallacy

According to the Lebanese news portal Now, Syrian Turkmens have announced the formation of a Syrian Turkmen militia to fight Syrian Kurds: Read More

According to the Lebanese news portal Now, Syrian Turkmens have announced the formation of a Syrian Turkmen militia to fight Syrian Kurds:

Syrian Turkmen military and political officials, who are close to Turkey, have been moving to form a unified army in northern Syria capable of confronting the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara views as a terror group. “Turkmen fighting groups in Syria have taken the decision to offer greater support to each other and work to create a Turkmen army if conditions permit,” Syrian Turkmen Assembly chief Abdel Rahman Mustafa told Turkish Anadolu news on Monday. The Turkmen official’s comments came as the Syrian Turkmen Assembly held a meeting in southern Turkey’s Gaziantep that brought together Turkmen representatives from Aleppo, Tal Abyad, Jarabulus, Latakia, Idlib, Raqqa and the Golan.

It might be the stuff of headlines in Lebanon, Turkey, and Syria, but no one should take such Turkmen posturing seriously. Rather, by allowing themselves to be used as proxies of Turkish intelligence, not only do the Turkmen de-legitimize themselves, but they also show the depths to which Turkish policy continues to fall.

Take the example of Iraq: Prior to the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, the State Department, Pentagon, and Central Intelligence Agency sometimes worked together and sometimes at cross purposes to bring order to the chaos of the Iraqi opposition. After the passage of the Iraq Liberation Act in 1998, the U.S. government designated six parties as official opposition groups but, over the next five years and over a series of opposition conferences and meetings, a constant demand of Turkish diplomats was that the United States grant the same recognition to the Iraqi Turkmen Front, a political opposition group which Turkish diplomats insisted represented hundreds of thousands if not millions of Iraqi Turkmen, descendants from the initial Ottoman incursions into what is now Iraq, as the Ottoman Sultan often rewarded service with patronage offices and land grants.

There haven’t been accurate, apolitical censuses in Iraq or Syria for more than a half-century, and so no one knows for sure how many Turkmen there are. Some Turkish nationalists estimate that there are a couple million in Iraq, while others place that figure at no more than a half million. Likewise, while Turkmen say they number well over a million in Syria, the reality is probably less than 200,000.

By repeatedly claiming they represented millions, the Turkmen representatives became associated with bluster and hyperbole. While American officials had to tolerate meetings with them, none of the leadership took the Turkmen political leaders seriously.

Beyond numbers, however, there was a basic problem: Many of the Turkmen wanted nothing to do with Turkey. In Iraq, the Turkmen were divided almost evenly among religious sect: Many of the Shi‘ite Turkmen preferred to identify by sect than by ethnicity. They greatly resented the sectarian lens through which Turkish officials sought to filter policy. As for the Sunni Turkmen, many of them resented Turkey’s heavy-handed attempts to speak on their behalf. Turkish and Iraqi interests, after all, are seldom the same. The most ridiculous aspect of the Turkmen representation was that the Iraqi Turkmen Front’s representative to the United States actually came from a Kurdish family, and only seemed to find a Turkmen identity when he was salaried to do so.

When it comes to Syria, it’s déjà vu all over again. Turkish officials seek to promote the Turkmen not to protect their identity but rather as a useful wedge to prevent any other solution while at the same time manufacturing a crisis with the Kurds that Ankara cannot win. There is certainly much to criticize about the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Democratic Union Party (PYD) is not blameless, but the Syrian Kurds are simply not going to go away. Syrian Kurds, like their Turkish, Iraqi, and Iranian counterparts, value individual liberty, cultural expression, and freedom. Targeting them simply because of their Kurdishness is foolish, but that seems to be what Ankara wants. Not only will Ankara’s attempt to hijack Syrian Turkmen leadership backfire by undermining the legitimacy of the Syrian Turkmen within the Syrian political context, but it will also do little to resolve the major problems facing Syria today: The rise of an Islamic State, which the Turkish government appears to support in reality if not always in rhetoric, and an oppressive Assad regime, which slaughters civilians and increasingly finds itself under the thumb of Iran. In fighting these two enemies, there has only been one effective force to date, and that has been the Syrian Kurds that Turkey now hopes to have its own little ethnic Hezbollah fight.

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Investors Turn Sour on Iraqi Kurdistan

It’s long been the dream of Iraqi Kurdish leaders to transform Iraqi Kurdistan into a new Dubai. Kurds have long bridged the delicate balance between the United States, Turkey, and Iran. While huge swaths of the country from Baghdad to Mosul and Kirkuk devolved into sectarian chaos and civil war, portions of Iraq controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) remained relatively stable and secure. The KRG sold the rights to explore for oil and gas and international oil companies found vast reserves. Here, for example, is the website to KRG’s campaign to encourage international investment. Ordinary Kurds had every expectation they would benefit from this windfall as money poured into the region. It didn’t work, however. Read More

It’s long been the dream of Iraqi Kurdish leaders to transform Iraqi Kurdistan into a new Dubai. Kurds have long bridged the delicate balance between the United States, Turkey, and Iran. While huge swaths of the country from Baghdad to Mosul and Kirkuk devolved into sectarian chaos and civil war, portions of Iraq controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) remained relatively stable and secure. The KRG sold the rights to explore for oil and gas and international oil companies found vast reserves. Here, for example, is the website to KRG’s campaign to encourage international investment. Ordinary Kurds had every expectation they would benefit from this windfall as money poured into the region. It didn’t work, however.

The KRG consistently has reneged on payments to oil conglomerates and on commitments to investors, often blaming Baghdad for failing to remit its portion of Kurdistan’s budget and, more recently, the strains of fighting the Islamic State.

Blaming Baghdad is often a successful strategy to deflect public blame away from the true costs of corruption and mismanagement. After decades of discrimination and worse, Kurds readily accept the narrative that the fault lies in Baghdad. But not only is a Kurd now Iraq’s finance minister, he is also Masoud Barzani’s uncle; he treats KRG with transparency. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi also struck an oil deal with the KRG shortly after taking office. When Kurdish salaries were not paid in December 2013 in Sulaymani, for example, the reality was that Baghdad had transferred the money to the KRG, but the money had somehow gone missing between Erbil and Suleimani. And while the cost of fighting the Islamic State is high, a portion of that expense is money siphoned from the treasury and paid to ‘ghost’ peshmerga; troops which exist on paper but not in reality. Indeed, the ghost employee scam is one reason why the KRG is so reluctant to embrace modern banking and electronic transfer of salaries.

The KRG regularly disparages any independent Kurdish journalist who writes about corruption or nepotism and, like the Iraqi government under the Baath party, regularly interrogates Kurds returning from travel abroad — including State Department-organized International visitor programs — to ensure they have not spoken to analysts or journalists whom the KRG fears would report critically about the situation in the KRG. Conversely, the KRG showers former U.S. government officials, retired military officers, and think tank analysts with gifts, contracts, and cash in order to sing the KRG’s praises.

Journalists may be superficial — they parachute in and out of a region quickly — but responsible investors and the international markets are not so easily swayed by rhetorical flak. They want to know the facts, see the books and, in areas where opacity is the rule, be convinced that the government line is rooted in reality.

Well, as cash has dried up, the KRG has recently tried to tap international debt markets for a five year, one billion dollar bond.  The market told them it would cost 12 percent.  In comparison, Ivory Coast debt with a much longer maturity — December 2032 — yields 6.43 percent, and Iraqi government debt with a 2028 maturity trades at 8.2%.  Twelve percent for a five-year paper is a slap in the face and a sign of complete lack of confidence in the KRG’s stewardship. Indeed, while the Kurdish government drops hints about its desire for a referendum leading to independence — hints it drops every few years but upon which it never acts — the international market now signals that the Kurds are very close to insolvency and that they believe the KRG has driven the Kurdish economy into the ground. Indeed, it says a great deal that international investors now have far greater confidence in the future of Iraq than in the future of Iraqi Kurdistan.

If Kurdistan were truly as democratic as its representatives say it is, it is long past time for the Kurdish parliament to ask very tough questions about the president and premier’s stewardship of the economy, investor relations, and rule-of-law.

 

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The Price of Sycophancy

Masoud Barzani, president of Iraqi Kurdistan, is having a bad month. After spending millions of dollars lobbying Washington to supply arms directly to the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga, the Congress reversed course and, to the surprise of Barzani and the Kurds who seemed just days before to consider approval a done deal, voted not to send weaponry directly to the Kurdistan Regional Government. It was the right call: Barzani and his government not only had already acquired weaponry directly from Iran and several European countries, but they also have a troubling tendency to stockpile weaponry to empower themselves vis-a-vis Kurdish political rivals rather than deploy them where needed. The oil-rich city of Kirkuk, long called the Kurdish Jerusalem by factional leaders like Barzani and rival Jalal Talabani, is probably the city most in the crosshairs of the Islamic State and yet the Kurdistan Regional Government has yet to supply it with the weaponry it needs. The weaponry isn’t in Baghdad or missing, but rather warehoused in Erbil. Former Parliamentary Speaker Kemal Kirkuki, a Barzani loyalist, may tell foreign journalists otherwise; he is lying and simply taking advantage of the fact that most journalists now parachute in for only a short period of time. Read More

Masoud Barzani, president of Iraqi Kurdistan, is having a bad month. After spending millions of dollars lobbying Washington to supply arms directly to the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga, the Congress reversed course and, to the surprise of Barzani and the Kurds who seemed just days before to consider approval a done deal, voted not to send weaponry directly to the Kurdistan Regional Government. It was the right call: Barzani and his government not only had already acquired weaponry directly from Iran and several European countries, but they also have a troubling tendency to stockpile weaponry to empower themselves vis-a-vis Kurdish political rivals rather than deploy them where needed. The oil-rich city of Kirkuk, long called the Kurdish Jerusalem by factional leaders like Barzani and rival Jalal Talabani, is probably the city most in the crosshairs of the Islamic State and yet the Kurdistan Regional Government has yet to supply it with the weaponry it needs. The weaponry isn’t in Baghdad or missing, but rather warehoused in Erbil. Former Parliamentary Speaker Kemal Kirkuki, a Barzani loyalist, may tell foreign journalists otherwise; he is lying and simply taking advantage of the fact that most journalists now parachute in for only a short period of time.

Nor is Barzani’s desire for family rule going as smoothly as he planned. Barzani has led the Kurdistan Regional Government since his return from exile against the backdrop of Operation Provide Comfort, the U.S.-led effort to create a safe-haven in 1991. He agreed to a two-term limit from 2005; that expired in 2013. He received a legally questionable two-year extension on his second term back in 2013, but that is soon to expire. Barzani and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) over which he maintains autocratic control has been working to extend his rule indefinitely but has been facing increasing resistance from the two other major regional parties: the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Goran. Harem Karem and Kamal Chomani, two of the most professional independent Kurdish journalists, have an excellent piece in the Kurdistan Tribune discussing the crossroad which Kurdistan now faces between democracy and autocracy. Needless to say, neither Barzani nor the KDP is happy with any resistance. A KDP parliamentarian, for example, attacked a Goran parliamentarian for speaking against the extralegal extension of Barzani’s term. An undisclosed medical emergency which sidelined Barzani a couple weeks ago — and forced him to cancel all appearances — only added fuel to the debate, given Barzani’s efforts to lay the groundwork for dynastic succession.

Finally, despite all the hype about Kurdistan’s oil potential, Kurdish officials find themselves perhaps $17 billion in debt, without any explanation as to where the money — owed to the oil companies for their share of the royalties — have gone. Apparently, Barzani’s government is gambling that the oil companies have invested too much already in Kurdistan to pull of stakes and accept their loss. While such a strategy might enrich some officials in the short-term, it is corrosive to long-term investor confidence in Kurdistan. This has forced Kurdistan to seek a $5 billion loan just to keep afloat.

Clearly, not all is going well for Barzani either in Kurdistan, in the United States or with investors. That he seems so surprised, however, illustrates one of the greatest Achilles’ heels of dictatorships: Sycophancy.

Barzani surrounds himself with yes-men. Those who parrot his line 100 percent are friends; those who only agree with him 90 percent of the time he and his staff consider enemies. He lives on a mountain top complex, which was once a public resort before Saddam Hussein seized it for himself. That Barzani appropriated it after Saddam was forced from the region was problematic. His staff argue that he needs it for security, but the optics have always been horrible and the cynicism of ordinary Kurds palpable. When living a couple dozen kilometers from the people he claims to represent, and when he seldom circulates among people, he might as well be ruling Kurdistan from the moon.

The problem of distance and sycophancy is compounded by the behavior of his staff. Why did they so greatly underestimate the atmosphere in Washington, D.C.? Last month, when Barzani visited Washington, his staff insisted host organizations run their invitation list past the Kurdistan Regional Government to ensure there would be no attendees who might ask difficult questions. The Center for New American Security (CNAS), on whose board a lobbyist for Kurdistan sits, systematically disinvited multiple analysts, writers, and academics whom they feared might ask difficult questions. (In a Washington Post piece earlier this week, CNAS President Richard Fontaine and Chief Executive Michèle Flournoy repeat the trope that Baghdad does not provide Kurdistan weapons in a timely matter. As the White House, Pentagon, and, increasingly, Congress know, this complaint has no basis in reality, and so it is curious that CNAS continues to repeat it. The Atlantic Council, where the daughter of Barzani’s chief-of-staff works, likewise ensured an ingratiating audience. It certainly crosses a line to allow a foreign entity to control the audience in the middle of Washington, D.C.

As a result, Barzani was confronted not with questions about governance, oil policy, or press freedom, but rather with statements about what a most amazing man he was. His aides might consider that a successful trip, but it reflected as much the reality of Washington, as Alice’s trip down the rabbit hole reflected the garden party above.

Nor is Barzani able to understand reality by reading critical columns in the Kurdish press. After being peppered with lawsuits by the Kurdish government claiming unfair criticism, Awene, one of the region’s most respected independent newspapers, is about to close. Security forces controlled by Barzani’s eldest son Masrour have beaten and even allegedly murdered writers for other independent newspapers. Most parties publish their own organs which simply amplify party propaganda in the belief that if repeated enough, it must be true. Parties and individual politicians control television stations. When any government suffocates the press, it loses perhaps the most important mirror to reflect true public concerns short of holding free and fair elections.

Now, I don’t mean to single out Barzani or the Kurds — it’s simply the sharpest example of a true disconnect between government perception and reality. The same has held true of Turkey. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan eviscerated the press, sought to control audiences not only in Turkey but also while traveling abroad, including in the United States. Think tanks which hold theoretically open and academic events in Istanbul systematically exclude the Turkish opposition, even if they represent half the population; they understand that is the price of Ankara’s cooperation and any minister let alone Erdoğan himself showing up. Turkey has gone beyond even the Kurds, trying to silence foreign critics with ultimately irrelevant lawsuits filed in Turkish courts. The Turkish embassy, meanwhile, long ago stopped representing Turkey and today represents only the ruling party. Fortunately, other Turkish parties have sent their own representatives and often do their outreach better than the professional Turkish diplomats.

I am supportive of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, despite his path to power. While critics abound in Washington, I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt with regard to the sincerity of his desire for reform. But, as he increasingly limits press freedom, constrains civil society, and uses the judiciary as a tool against opposition, he risks losing touch as he is no longer able to escape the bubble created by his sycophants. At some point, he will reach a tipping point when public opinion shifts against him. If he only discovers that months or even years after the fact, the resulting violence can be extreme.

Against this backdrop, what should the United States do? It’s important to support free press among both friend and foe. It should be the position of the United States always to support free speech abroad so long as it does not incite violence or genocide as during the dark days of the Rwanda genocide or wars resulting from the breakup of Yugoslavia. Furthermore, while systems may be indispensable, leaders never are. And while entourages may like to shield leaders from the reality of public opinion at home, it should not be the job of any truly independent or academic organization in the United States to aid and abet that bubble. One thing is certain: When rulers insulate themselves behind layers of yes-men, the result is never the adulation of the people or an accurate sense of one position in the world. Rather, it is often quite the opposite.

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Resolution for Families of Kurdistan’s Disappeared?

Iraqi Kurdistan might be the toast of town today. With at least four separate lobby firms and a multimillion dollar budget, it continues to promote itself as stable, secure, and democratic; an oasis of sanity in an insane region. The reality is more nuanced.

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Iraqi Kurdistan might be the toast of town today. With at least four separate lobby firms and a multimillion dollar budget, it continues to promote itself as stable, secure, and democratic; an oasis of sanity in an insane region. The reality is more nuanced.

Kurdistan is stable, but security is based on a devil’s bargain. Iranian influence is as great in Iraqi Kurdistan as it is in Baghdad. Qods Force chief Qassem Soleimani has free reign in Kurdistan and is a frequent visitor to both Sulaymani and Erbil. There is no phone call or private conversation with Kurdish officials whose transcript is not read in Tehran within an hour, either because the Iranians eavesdrop or because the Kurds deliver whatever the Iranians ask. The fact that so many American visitors see the Kurds are altruistic toward the United States only enhances Iranian power. Kurds may like Americans, but they also remember Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s betrayal of the Kurdish revolution in 1975 and President Ronald Reagan turning a blind eye toward Saddam’s chemical weapons use in 1988.

The notion that Kurdistan is democratic is risible. The parliament is rubber-stamp; the president has out-served his term; and a personality cult surrounding regional leader Masoud Barzani is enforced with an iron fist. Even if American diplomats have little historical awareness, and Congressmen even shorter memories, Kurds have two major grievances about their leadership they have been unwilling to forget.

The first grievance involves collaboration. Documents seized from Saddam Hussein after his fall shows unequivocally shows that some senior members of both Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) had collaborated with and reported to Saddam Hussein’s intelligence service; none have lost their jobs for their betrayal, let alone faced justice. In 1996, Barzani himself invited Saddam’s dreaded Republican Guards into the Kurdish capital Erbil to protect him against Kurdish rivals. Barzani’s willingness to collaborate with Saddam only eight years after Saddam used chemical weapons against Kurds and also had killed 8,000 members of Barzani’s tribe has become a symbol of the cynicism of the Kurdish leadership.

The second grievance involves the status of the disappeared. Kurdish officials often talk about democracy, but what the Kurds actually have is a carefully calibrated power sharing. The problem Kurds have with elections is that the political party leaders will not accept defeat or willing to serve in opposition. They know government institutions are neither strong nor independent enough to allow a mechanism back into power once that is lost. After the 1992 elections, the KDP and PUK split power. Every KDP official was matched with a PUK deputy and vice versa. Suspicion was rife, and war broke out as the PUK accused the KDP of cheating on revenue sharing.

The resulting conflict was bloody. Between 1994 and 1997, KDP and PUK Peshmerga fought each other to a standstill, with the KDP accepting Saddam’s support and the PUK enjoying some Iranian backing. Thousands were killed, but not everyone died on the battlefield. The two sides took approximately 400 prisoners. Some were captured in combat, but security forces loyal to either Barzani or Talabani arrested many others at home.

To this day, neither the KDP nor the PUK will acknowledge what happened to the prisoners and where they are buried. Sadly, not every mass grave in Iraq was filled by Saddam or, later, the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh).

Recently, lists have circulated about the missing. Approximately, 200 were KDP or PUK members captured by the other side. According to some of their family members, not all were captured in combat; some PUK members had turned themselves in when the KDP captured Erbil and Barzani promised them safety. They expected they would be sent to the PUK as party to a prisoner transfer; they never expected the firing squad. In addition, sixty-seven were Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) guerrillas captured during fighting between the KDP and PKK. Eleven were members of Islamic parties that the PUK captured, and 50 were civilians arrested by PUK or KDP security forces on terrorism charges. Today, the PUK anti-terrorism force is run by Talabani’s nephew and the KDP corollary is run by Barzani’s son; to suggest that both do not have access to the records of their respective organizations is not credible.

Recently, according to Kurdish journalists, Karim Sinjari, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)’s Interior Minister, has written to the KRG parliament’s human rights committee reporting that none of the disappeared is alive. He provided no further details. Many Kurds believe that the KDP ordered the execution of its prisoners at Akre Prison, while the PUK put their prisoners to death in the PUK’s secret prison on Azmar mountain which, ironically, was once a facility for Saddam’s secret services.

On May 11, families of the missing protested in front of parliament. Parliamentary speaker Yousif Mohammed met the protestors and promised top form a committee to investigate the issue, and have said it may even be possible to question Karim Sinjari under oath in parliament. They accuse Sinjari of having a direct role in some of their murders and demand to know the whereabouts of their graves.

Western diplomats may want to allow bygones to be bygones, but the issue might not be so easy. Many senior Kurdish officials have American passports, British passports, Swedish passports, and German passports and it is quite possible—indeed, from what I hear, likely—that the victims’ families will seek recourse in U.S. and European courts when those alleged to have complicity have the relevant citizenship. No longer will what happened in Kurdistan stay in Kurdistan. Nor will the State Department be able to prevent some of what may be coming.

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Who’s Stopping Kurdish Independence?

Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, visited Washington, DC, earlier this month to meet with President Barack Obama. Barzani came knowing his chance of success–he wanted direct provision of weaponry–was poor. Kurds could read it in the tea leaves: When Barzani feels he’s going to get what he wants, he brings only his sons and a few hangers-on from his political party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) over which he presides with an iron first. That way, he can claim all the credit for himself, his family, and the party. When he knows his trip isn’t going to be successful, however, he includes in his entourage token members of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan or the Goran Movement, the region’s other major parties, so that he doesn’t need to shoulder blame himself.

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Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, visited Washington, DC, earlier this month to meet with President Barack Obama. Barzani came knowing his chance of success–he wanted direct provision of weaponry–was poor. Kurds could read it in the tea leaves: When Barzani feels he’s going to get what he wants, he brings only his sons and a few hangers-on from his political party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) over which he presides with an iron first. That way, he can claim all the credit for himself, his family, and the party. When he knows his trip isn’t going to be successful, however, he includes in his entourage token members of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan or the Goran Movement, the region’s other major parties, so that he doesn’t need to shoulder blame himself.

Before he came to Washington, Barzani’s office told Kurds back in Iraqi Kurdistan that he would push Obama for independence. He actually didn’t talk about independence at the White House—he never does—but speaking later to a hand-picked audience at the Atlantic Council, where the daughter of his chief-of-staff works, he reiterated that he would steer Kurds to realize their dreams of independence.

The Kurds deserve independence, but Barzani will never deliver it. He has always used independence as a rhetorical tool around which to rally Kurds and increasingly he uses the lack of independence as an excuse against reform (he is currently serving the tenth year of his eight year presidency).

While it is the policy of the United States to oppose Iraq’s division (just like President George H.W. Bush once opposed the Soviet Union’s division), should the Kurds declare their independence in Iraqi Kurdistan, both the United States and Turkey would likely support them. For Obama, red lines are rhetorical only. There never will be a green light, but Barzani could run the yellow if he so chose.

But even if Barzani was willing to forgo the billions of dollars he receives from the Kurdish share of southern Iraq’s oil revenue, he knows deep down that he cannot declare independence. The problem is not Washington, but rather Tehran. When the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) seized Mosul, the Kurds unilaterally took control of Kirkuk and many other disputed territories. In short, by fait accompli, they possessed most of over what they once had negotiated. It was Iran that threw cold water on to the optimism Kurds felt.

On July 6, 2014, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian declared:

“This talk about breaking apart Iraq is a Zionist plot… We should not forget that in recent days, the only place that joyfully supported the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan and urged the region to secede was Netanyahu. We will never allow the dreams of Netanyahu in Iraq and our region for the breaking apart of the critical region of West Asia to come true.”

Amir-Abdollahian’s comments, like so much that drives Iranian foreign policy, may be conspiratorial nonsense, but Barzani knows that the Qods Force, the elite unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps charged with export of revolution and which has free reign over Iraqi Kurdistan, would sooner kill Barzani than allow any referendum to move forward let alone independence. The problem isn’t division of Iraq so much as the precedent for Iran. Just in the last week, mass protests have erupted in Iranian Kurdistan after an Iranian intelligence ministry employee attempted to rape a Kurdish maid in a Mahabad hotel. Iranian Kurds have a history of separatism, as do Iranian Azerbaijanis, Baluchis, and Arabs. That doesn’t mean the majority of Azeris, Baluchis, and Arabs want to split from Iran—the sense of Iranian nationhood predates the ethno-nationalism around which so many countries organized themselves in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Iran has, however, been traumatized by separatist movements which today make it half the size many Iranians believe Iran should be if it were not for past ‘historical injustice.’

In short, Barzani can talk about independence all he wants when he’s in Washington, Hungary, or the Czech Republic. The true test of Barzani’s seriousness, however, will be when he talks about independence while in Iran. They are the real obstacles to Iraqi Kurdish independence, and no one else.

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Why Can’t Kurdistan Afford to Fight ISIS?

Iraqi Kurdistan is, like Iraq itself, in a financial crisis. Salaries for state employees—the majority of workers in the region—are months in arrears. The Kurdish leaders frequently accuse the Iraqi central government of not forwarding Kurdistan its share of the Iraqi oil revenue. Indeed, sometimes, money transfers from Baghdad to Erbil are delayed (and, more often, transfers from Erbil to Sulaymani). Kurdistan has, however, been exporting its own oil and has also refrained from passing along contractual royalties to the various oil companies operating in Iraqi Kurdistan, meaning there is money in Erbil; the government simply chooses not to spend it.

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Iraqi Kurdistan is, like Iraq itself, in a financial crisis. Salaries for state employees—the majority of workers in the region—are months in arrears. The Kurdish leaders frequently accuse the Iraqi central government of not forwarding Kurdistan its share of the Iraqi oil revenue. Indeed, sometimes, money transfers from Baghdad to Erbil are delayed (and, more often, transfers from Erbil to Sulaymani). Kurdistan has, however, been exporting its own oil and has also refrained from passing along contractual royalties to the various oil companies operating in Iraqi Kurdistan, meaning there is money in Erbil; the government simply chooses not to spend it.

When the Iraqi Kurds claim that they do not have the money to acquire arms and ammunition to fight the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh), they may want to consider the more than $30 million which President Masoud Barzani claimed from the Iraqi Ministry of Finance in 2014 (Hoshyar Zebari, the minister of finance, is Barzani’s uncle although there has been no suggestions by Iraqis that he has acted improperly). Here’s a breakdown of Barzani’s annual office expenses as provided to me:

  • Office stationery: 250,000,000 Iraqi Dinar [ID] ($214,000)
  • News subscriptions: 200,000,000 ID ($171,000)
  • Food: 14,370,000,000 ID ($12.3 million) or, approximately, $33,700 per day
  • Hotels: 700,000,000 ID ($601,000)
  • Travel expenses: 1,650,000,000 ID ($1.38 million)
  • Clothes: 300,000,000 ID ($257,000)
  • Vehicle maintenance: 1,180,000,000 ID ($1 million)
  • Fuel: 1,700,000,000 ID ($1.46 million)
  • Distribution and gifts: 2,500,000,000 ID ($2.1 million)
  • Rent: 500,000,000 ID ($429,000)

In addition, there are two other line items for ‘other expenses.’ One is for 10,100,000,000 ID ($8.6 million) and 450,000,000 ID ($386,000). Regional presidents must entertain, these sums represent quite a hefty chunk of change (and that doesn’t take into account the fact that I rounded down, or that the Iraqi currency has weakened slightly relative to the dollar; the real total is a few million dollars higher. And several expenses are curious. To whom is Barzani giving gifts worth a total of $2 million? Let us hope that not too many American officials have been tempted although, alas, in the past some have. And for what is he paying rent? A penthouse in Dubai? A chalet in Switzerland? A villa on the Bosporus in Istanbul? And is it really worth paying $171,000 in news subscriptions when the same information could be had largely for free if he has his staff scan the Internet?

Now, importantly, these figures don’t include Barzani’s salary itself: He reportedly makes as much per month officially as President Barack Obama does in a year. Obama’s annual entertainment allowance is just $19,000, so about half a day in Barzani-land.

The point is this: the Kurdistan Regional Government may claim poverty now, and the expense of fighting ISIS may be daunting. But Barzani—who is now serving the tenth year of his eight-year presidency—has consistently prioritized his own comfort and a taste for luxury above the needs of the people whose allegiance he claims. At this time of crisis—and that is what the rise of ISIS is—Kurds cannot help but compare Barzani (and, in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan’s domains, the parallel profligacy of Hero Ibrahim Ahmad, ailing former president Jalal Talabani’s wife) with the bare-bones spending and austerity practiced by the Syrian Kurdish militia which, perhaps not by coincidence, has seen far greater success fighting ISIS in Syria and also in and around Sinjar than their KDP brethren. That doesn’t make the Syrian Kurds perfect, but how governments spend money is perhaps the most accurate reflection of their values.

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Arm the Kurds to Fight ISIS? Try the YPG

Iraq Kurdish President Masoud Barzani has been making the rounds in Washington. Chief among his demands is that the United States provide weaponry directly to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) that, he argued at a speech yesterday, controls the equivalent of a nearly 1,000-mile border with the Islamic State (if one includes the peshmerga presence in disputed areas like Diyala).

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Iraq Kurdish President Masoud Barzani has been making the rounds in Washington. Chief among his demands is that the United States provide weaponry directly to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) that, he argued at a speech yesterday, controls the equivalent of a nearly 1,000-mile border with the Islamic State (if one includes the peshmerga presence in disputed areas like Diyala).

The Obama administration has resisted arming the KRG directly, despite some recent calls in Congress, and has instead argued that the United States should supply the Kurds through Iraq’s central government so as to reinforce Iraq’s unity. That may be a policy which most Kurds disagree with, but it is the firm position of the Obama administration. The fact that the White House consistently makes Vice President Joseph Biden articulate it only underlines the U.S. commitment to Iraqi unity, as Biden had previously been a leading voice for the tripartite division of Iraq.

The White House effectively shut down Barzani’s demand for direct provision of weaponry. Speaking to a friendly audience at the Atlantic Council (where the daughter of his chief-of-staff works), he simply said that so long as the Kurds receive weaponry, he doesn’t care about the process.

While the Kurds should be armed to fight the Islamic State, the goal of Senators Barbara Boxer (D.-Calif.) and Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) to enable that with direct provision to the KRG may not be realized if they rely on Barzani and the Kurdistan Regional Government alone. Here’s why:

  • While the United States has not provided weaponry directly to Barzani and the KRG, many other countries have, for example, Iran and Germany. Rather than use those weapons where they were needed, Barzani stockpiled them and limited their distribution to those peshmerga controlled by his own political party. The Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh), for example, has been working actively to destabilize Kirkuk, but Kirkuk has not received any of the donated weaponry. The problem? It elected a Kurdish politician as its governor who has spoken out against corruption and belongs to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), a party that has long been a rival to Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). Even at the moment of greatest crisis for the Kurds, Barzani has not been able to cast aside his political narrow-mindedness. It’s that provincialism which ISIS has exploited.
  • Corruption also undercuts Kurdish success against ISIS. Masoud Barzani appointed his eldest son Masrour to head both the intelligence service and chair the KRG’s National Security Council. Masrour’s attention, however, has been elsewhere. Back in 2010, Masrour apparently purchased an $11 million mansion in McLean, Virginia. While he initially denied that purchase—which came against the backdrop of the KRG defaulting on salary payments—he was so cocky that he subsequently held a birthday party for himself with KDP supporters in the house. If the Kurds are running short of guns and ammunition, they might consider how much they might purchase if their leaders used such funds for collective defense rather than personal luxury.
  • While the Iraq government has replaced generals (and its prime minister) and sought to regroup after the Iraqi Army’s disastrous showing against the backdrop of ISIS’ seizure of Mosul and its rapid advance across the heart of Iraq, there has been no similar soul-searching in the KRG. Most Yezidis are furious at Barzani for ignoring intelligence about the impending ISIS offensive against Sinjar, for his refusal to send reinforcement, for his refusal to send supplies, and for the peshmerga’s subsequent hasty retreat leaving Yezidi men and boys to be massacred and women and girls to be raped. Then, as ISIS forces advanced on Erbil, many senior KDP officials boarded planes and fled. Barzani has, to date, shielded the airplane manifests from the public or purged those who were prepared to abandon Kurdistan in its hour of need. More recently, the Kurds have exaggerated success. Here is Masrour Barzani announcing Sinjar’s liberation last December. Alas, public posturing aside, Sinjar is anything but liberated.

If the goal is to defeat ISIS, the Kurds should receive weaponry and support, but it should be the right Kurds. If Barzani is going to put family and tribal considerations ahead of Kurdistan’s security or the fight against ISIS, then the United States should supervision distribution of that weaponry to ensure that Baghdad and Erbil send it where it is most needed. Kirkuk shouldn’t be cut off just because Kirkukis didn’t support Barzani in the last election.

Likewise, the most successful Kurds in the fight against ISIS have been the Yekîneyên Parastina Gel (YPG), the People’s Protection Units, which are basically the Syrian Kurdish peshmerga. They are the group that, with very little outside support, put up still resistance in Kobane, ultimately defeating the Islamic State. They are also the group to which the Iraqi Yezidis, disgusted with the KRG’s antics, have largely turned. They are the most powerful and successful secular group in Syria. Last year, I traveled to Syrian Kurdistan (Rojava) where I was able to see firsthand the success built by the YPG and the sacrifices they have made. If the United States wants bang for its buck, perhaps the YPG should be the recipient of weaponry to cut off the retreat of ISIS members back into Syria (and onto Sinjar Mountain) in order to ensure that any Iraqi and Iraqi Kurdish success doesn’t become the military equivalent of punching jello. The YPG may have links to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a group that waged insurgency in Turkey in the 1980s and 1990s and, to some extent, the last decade as well. But the Cold War is over, there is an active peace process in Turkey, and the YPG, unlike the Turkish government, is on the right side of the fight against ISIS.

Barzani is right that the United States should support the Kurds. We should. But that does not mean that Barzani should have a monopoly over that support when he and his sons have shown themselves not fully up to the task. Support Iraq, support Iraqi Kurdistan, support the peshmerga and support the YPG. Boxer and Ernst have their heart in the right place, but lobbyists who peddle an inaccurate or incomplete narrative should not fool them; instead, they should ask their Kurdish interlocutors some very hard questions. It’s time to have a coherent strategy to defeat ISIS rather than being drawn cynically into a self-defeating Kurdish political game.

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Southern Iraq Bypassing Kurdistan in Democracy

Earlier this week, I hosted a panel at the American Enterprise Institute to discuss Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abbadi’s visit to Washington. It was a politically diverse panel with Brian Katulus, a scholar at the Center for American Progress; the New America Foundation’s Douglas Ollivant; and National Defense University’s Denise Natali. Brian’s Arabic is stellar and he has broad experience across the Middle East. While we disagree sometimes with regard to policy prescriptions, his analysis of the facts is always tight, careful, and accurate. Doug, for his part, has spent perhaps more time in Iraq than anyone else outside government, and that doesn’t include his time serving in Iraq with the U.S. Army or subsequent service in the National Security Council. Unlike most analysts, he doesn’t drop in and out of Baghdad for meetings or at the invitation of the U.S. embassy, but rather travels across the country to see the real Iraq beyond the security bubble. And, as for Denise, her experience with Iraq and the Iraqi Kurds goes back decades; she is probably the top expert with regard to Iraqi Kurds in the United States today.

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Earlier this week, I hosted a panel at the American Enterprise Institute to discuss Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abbadi’s visit to Washington. It was a politically diverse panel with Brian Katulus, a scholar at the Center for American Progress; the New America Foundation’s Douglas Ollivant; and National Defense University’s Denise Natali. Brian’s Arabic is stellar and he has broad experience across the Middle East. While we disagree sometimes with regard to policy prescriptions, his analysis of the facts is always tight, careful, and accurate. Doug, for his part, has spent perhaps more time in Iraq than anyone else outside government, and that doesn’t include his time serving in Iraq with the U.S. Army or subsequent service in the National Security Council. Unlike most analysts, he doesn’t drop in and out of Baghdad for meetings or at the invitation of the U.S. embassy, but rather travels across the country to see the real Iraq beyond the security bubble. And, as for Denise, her experience with Iraq and the Iraqi Kurds goes back decades; she is probably the top expert with regard to Iraqi Kurds in the United States today.

The whole panel might be worth watching for a sense of the breadth of the issues beyond the Iraq-U.S. headlines, but there was one topic addressed which might be surprising, and that is the trajectory of democracy and democratization inside Iraq.

For much of the past two decades, Iraqi Kurdistan has laid claims to being not only the most stable, secure region of Iraq, but also the most democratic. This traces back to May 1992 when, in the vacuum created by the abrupt withdrawal of central government forces from Iraqi Kurdistan (Saddam hoped to starve the Kurds into submission), the Kurds held an election in which the Kurdistan Democratic Party, led by Masud Barzani, topped the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, led by Jalal Talabani, 45 percent to 44 percent, with smaller and proxy parties taking the remainder. The two parties agreed to divide power equitably and, when this led to a violent struggle, they simply divided territory between them.

While there have been elections in Iraqi Kurdistan since, their outcome has seldom impacted control of Kurdistan. Indeed, Barzani is now serving the 11th year of his eight-year presidency. Given a choice between the democratic visions of Nelson Mandela or Bashar al-Assad, Barzani chose the latter. He embraced the imagery of democracy (remember Assad as the Western-educated reformer?) while imposing dictatorship. The top ranks of Iraqi Kurdish political life are dominated by an older political class and, when young blood is infused into the system, it is limited to the immediate family, hence the prime minister is Masud’s nephew and the national security council chair is Masud’s son. Ditto the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, a party which once prided itself on ideology but now essentially revolves around a few families. Hero Ibrahim Ahmed, the wife of former President Talabani, maneuvered to marginalize able party official Barham Salih because she felt he disrespected her family, but placed her young, articulate, but relatively inexperienced son as deputy prime minister.

The juxtaposition between Iraqi Kurdistan and southern Iraq is striking. Like Kurdistan, southern Iraq is booming. Najaf and Karbala are as dynamic as the cities of Kurdistan were a decade ago, and investment continues to pour in. While most of the parties in power in southern Iraq are Islamist in character, the experience of the past decade has shown many Iraqis that religious rhetoric does not substitute for competence. Incumbents have been ousted, and a new generation of politicians have now risen through the ranks of Da’wa, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, and smaller parties. The point is this: Kurdish leaders continue to repress the new generation. Family trumps competence. In southern Iraq, however, competence trumps family.

Among Iraq’s most chronic problems are capacity and management. Iraqis still have far to go in both categories, but there is a growing cadre of technocrats and bureaucrats in southern Iraq who have proven themselves and have begun to rise through the ranks. They have raised the bar of competence on what it takes to be a politician or a civil servant. They know they must deliver, and that holding office is not simply about collecting a monthly salary and an inflated pension. The same is not true in Iraqi Kurdistan, where the competent must either acquiesce to an artificially low glass ceiling, or leave their country to pursue their careers outside Iraq. That is becoming a tragedy for which Kurds might soon pay a major price.

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Beyond ISIS, Kurdistan Faces Internal Crisis

More often than not, when Iraqi Kurdistan enters into U.S. discussion, it is simply in terms of its status as a U.S. ally and frontline force against the Islamic State. Of course, every so often, the human-rights abuses of its leadership will make international headlines, for example when the security forces run by President Masoud Barzani’s eldest son Masrour apparently decide to kill a young journalist for the crime of penning a poem condemning Barzani family nepotism. An appreciation for irony, it seems, is not a Barzani family trait.

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More often than not, when Iraqi Kurdistan enters into U.S. discussion, it is simply in terms of its status as a U.S. ally and frontline force against the Islamic State. Of course, every so often, the human-rights abuses of its leadership will make international headlines, for example when the security forces run by President Masoud Barzani’s eldest son Masrour apparently decide to kill a young journalist for the crime of penning a poem condemning Barzani family nepotism. An appreciation for irony, it seems, is not a Barzani family trait.

But with the Islamic State threat checked, at least for the moment, a larger problem now threatens Iraqi Kurdistan which, alongside Israel and the Gulf states, appears the last bastion of stability in the Middle East. And it is a problem of its own making: poor governance, corruption, and bureaucratic bloat. While high oil prices enabled regional governments to avoid reform, and short-term exigencies led Kurdistan’s allies to turn a blind eye toward its internal problems, sustained low oil prices have now contributed to a crisis which increasingly few inside or outside Kurdistan can or should ignore.

Kemal Chomani is among the most talented Kurdish journalists of his generation. Writing in the Kurdistan Tribune, Chomani notes that Iraqi Kurdistan is now $17 billion in debt:

The KRG has been undergoing severe financial crises for a year. Qubad [Talabani, son of the former president] forgot that KRG debts have reached 17 billion dollars. State employees are not getting their monthly salaries…. So surprisingly, and unashamedly, he said they have been able to manage paying employees’ wages by “begging”. He clearly degrades the dignity of our nation. He should tell us where they have begged for us. Is it their duty to beg or work? In the meantime, securing loans from the oil companies, their own companies and Turkey doesn’t mean they have been successful in resolving financial crises. As Mala Yasin, chief of Dealers of Kurdistan, has said, due to the financial crises more than 300,000 KRG workers have been made redundant. In the past three years, thousands of students have graduated from universities and yet you can hardly find one who might have got a job. Even though there’s no statistics to show the real unemployment rate, by having just a few conversations with the youth in the streets one can easily realize how high it is in the Kurdistan region.

Such indebtedness is especially curious given how, according to analysis by Kurdistan Tribune editor Harem Karem and Chomani, Kurdistan has reaped at least $100 billion in the last few years alone. Where this money has disappeared to is unclear, although some senior Kurdish officials have become fabulously wealthy.

In my last several trips to Iraqi Kurdistan, friends from across the Kurdish political spectrum have complained that salary payments are months in arrears and rumors abound that the Kurdistan Regional Government had late last year taken out a $500 million loan simply to make payroll. So what is the regional government’s response, even as oil prices plummet? According to Chomani, writing on his Facebook page, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Finance Ministry has announced the addition of 5,000 members of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (Talabani’s party) to the state payroll, even though they work in party and not state offices. This would be analogous to President Obama deciding to add Democratic party operatives continuing to work in offices belonging to the Chicago Democratic Party to the federal payroll, without actually requiring them to take federal jobs or abandon their party activist role.

Against the backdrop of Iraqi Kurdistan’s financial woes, investor confidence is taking a hit as corruption scandals which the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) would just assume ignore wind their way through foreign courts. The most recent case involving oil deals comes from Korea, where the Korea National Oil Corporation (KNOC) operations in Kurdistan have now become the stuff of recrimination, blackmail by the KRG, and revelations in South Korea about bribery allegedly involving a $31.4 million “signing bonus” for the Kurdish oil minister Ashti Hawrami.

Certainly, Iraqi Kurdistan is not alone in facing an unprecedented budget crisis, or in being hampered by corruption, although unrestrained KRG corruption makes for a poor comparison with Dubai, other Gulf States, or even Morocco, where other investors might look. The unwillingness of the government to address the problems—there was a fistfight in parliament the other day when an opposition parliamentarian raised questions of rule of law regarding the president’s extra-constitutional extension of term—raises question about what can be done.

Iraqi Kurdistan is too important to write off, but the tendency of former U.S. officials and perhaps current diplomats as well simply to sing the region’s praises does more harm than good. If Kurdistan is to remain stable, and if its leaders truly seek to continue down the democratic path, then it is time for a no-nonsense approach to governance and a serious response to corruption. Too many countries with oil have assumed they are indispensable to the world’s voracious energy appetite, only to realize that corruption, organized crime, and insecurity can do an investment in. Kurdish officials may feel two out of three isn’t bad. They’d be wrong.

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Be Very Worried About Barzani Family Power Struggle

American officials tend to lionize Iraqi Kurdistan, and not without reason. Iraqi Kurdistan has, for more than two decades, been stable and relatively secure. And while its claims to be democratic are a bit exaggerated, its transformation in a relatively short period of time is astounding.

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American officials tend to lionize Iraqi Kurdistan, and not without reason. Iraqi Kurdistan has, for more than two decades, been stable and relatively secure. And while its claims to be democratic are a bit exaggerated, its transformation in a relatively short period of time is astounding.

That said, the region was never democratic—the freest and fairest election it had was in 1992—and then the leaders simply massaged the process in order to maintain their hold. Regional President Masud Barzani, for example, is officially limited to two terms by the constitution, but got around the problem by extending his second term extra-legally. Simply put, today, Iraqi Kurdistan is a dictatorship.

The two ruling families dominate politics and society. Masud Barzani is president and lives in a palace complex in a resort inherited from Saddam Hussein. His nephew, Nechirvan Barzani, is prime minister. His uncle, Hoshyar Zebari, was Iraq’s foreign minister and is now finance minister. Masud’s eldest son, Masrour Barzani, leads the intelligence service; and his second son Mansour is a general, as is Masud’s brother Wajy. Barzani’s nephew Sirwan owns the regional cell phone company which, while purchased with public money, remains a private holding. Barzani’s sons are frequently in Washington D.C. They have their wives give birth in Sibley Hospital in order to ensure the next generation has American citizenship, and Masrour Barzani acquired an $11 million mansion in McLean, Virginia. Hanging out in Tyson’s Corner, Virginia, some of Masoud Barzani’s daughters-in-law have, according to Kurdish circles, been known to introduce themselves as “Princesses of Kurdistan” as they visit high-end shops accompanied by their own rather unnecessary (while in the United States) security details.

(Barzani isn’t the only family dynasty, just the most important one. Former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s wife Hero Ibrahim Ahmad runs a number of media outlets, “non-governmental organizations,” and maintains a stranglehold over the finances of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the political party Talabani founded. She calls the shots for her son Qubad, whom she maneuvered into the deputy premiership. Lahur Talabani, the former president’s nephew, is head of his party’s counter-terrorism unit. President Talabani, when deciding who from his party should join him in Baghdad, appointed his brother-in-law Latif Rashid to be a minister.)

Family means everything in Kurdistan. When Masud Barzani met with President Obama several years ago at the White House, he brought with him Masrour and nephew Nechirvan even though the latter at the time was out of office and without any governmental role. Barham Salih, the serving prime minister, stayed home. Barham simply didn’t come from the right family. The Barzani Charity Foundation has “urged” other non-governmental organizations not to compete in certain sectors, or face the consequences. Meanwhile, its funds—Kurdish NGO workers and journalist say—go as much toward private jets and six-figure salaries as they do to assistance.

Masud Barzani is a dictator. As Islamist terrorists rage over the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, Barzani remains calm to that supposed provocation. But when Sardasht Osman, a young Kurdish journalist, penned a relatively innocent poem highlighting how his life and fortunes would change if he married Barzani’s daughter—a subtle and sophisticated poke at the region’s nepotism and corruption—Barzani’s security service led by son Masrour apparently kidnapped and executed him. Family trumps everything.

For policymakers and businessmen in the United States or Europe who seek only stability and do not prioritize democracy, that may be fine. After all, aside from Israel and perhaps now Tunisia, the Middle East isn’t known for democracy. That stability, however, is on the verge of breaking down and, ironically, the reason is family.

Masud Barzani is nearing 70 years old. Like many Middle Eastern potentates, he is carefully considering his succession. While many in the West assume that Nechirvan Barzani, on paper the second-most powerful Kurdish figure, would be next in line, Masud has apparently decided to cast his lot with son Masrour. There have been subtle personnel changes and alterations in portfolios in recent years as Masrour has consolidated power. Take the case of Karim Sinjari: In theory the interior minister answering to Nechirvan Barzani, Sinjari has seen Masrour encroach on his power and portfolio in recent years. Whereas Sinjari once was responsible for the region’s impressive security, today Sinjari’s title may be the same but he holds sway over little more than local and traffic police forces.

The result of the power struggle matters. Both Nechirvan and Masrour Barzani would be corrupt by any American standard. Certainly, that’s a more difficult call by Iraqi and Kurdish law which doesn’t define business and political conflicts of interest in the same way. Still, both the Barzanis (and Talabanis) confuse personal, party, and public funds. That said, while Nechirvan Barzani may be corrupt, it is in the Tammany Hall sense: his machine may be shady at times, but it delivers not only to his immediate inner circle but to the public at large. Nechirvan is skilled, works with both supporters and opposition, and is generally popular. He does not exaggerate his academic or military prowess; he is self-confident enough to know that he need not bother, and that the general public sees through and privately jokes about embellishments. Nechirvan also knows that it is far better to co-opt or ignore opponents than use force to imprison or kill them.

Masrour is not so nuanced. Most of the crises which soiled the Barzani name over the past decade—the imprisonment of political critics, the attacks on critics in Virginia and Vienna, and the murder of journalists seem to rest at Masrour’s feet.

The problem may be generational: The Barzanis are much like the Saudis. Both Masud Barzani’s father Mullah Mustafa Barzani and Ibn Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia, were tribal leaders. Even at the height of their power, they remained close to the people. With every generation, however, the Saudis and Barzanis grew more isolated. Masud understands why his father was popular and may genuinely desire to be the same sort of leader, but he has allowed a huge distance—both literal and figurative—to develop between himself and the people he supposedly represents. He does not mix and mingle. The newest generation, however, has no real memory of their grandfather, and so has a very limited sense of the responsibility they inherit. They were born to power and see it as an entitlement. If Masoud Barzani’s grandsons enter the Erbil airport or any other government complex, scores of servants will bow and genuflect toward them. Grow up with endless servants and grown men singing your praises, little discipline and a sense that rules and the law are beneath you, and the same sort of perverse morality and mindset that afflicted Saddam Hussein’s sons and Muammar Gaddafi’s children can take root. Whereas Nechirvan uses power with nuance and still seeks to deliver, Masrour can simply be cruel. Human-rights monitors say that businessmen who do not pay him kickbacks are imprisoned, and journalists who write critically of him or his father disappear. He is quick to threaten, and seldom delivers. Nechirvan is smart; Masrour is not. Prior to the Islamic State’s seizure of Mosul, for example, Nechirvan understood the danger they posed; Masrour was too clever by half and apparently thought he could use them against political enemies.

Various people have tried to warn Masud about his sons’ behavior. In the past, Barzani supporters would say that Masud was simply unaware of their antics. Seldom does anyone hear such excuses anymore. Kurdish officials—and even Barzani family members—whisper that, like Saddam Hussein, Barzani is aware of the excesses and behavior of his sons but simply does not care. Family trumps Kurdistan, let alone democracy.

What does this mean for the United States? Privately, both diplomats and intelligence circles seem to understand the dynamics of the Masrour-Nechirvan split and, if it is not too strong a term, the psychopathic trends within Masrour’s behavior. They have expressed their displeasure by withdrawing diplomatic etiquette and searching Masrour and his delegation at Dulles airport, but there is a limit to what American officials are willing to do. That said, post-Masud Kurdistan—and potentially U.S.-Kurdish relations—will be far different with Masrour predominant than with Nechirvan in charge. The question for U.S. policymakers and perhaps the intelligence community as well is whether they are content to watch a slow-motion train wreck or whether leverage exists to prevent worst-case scenarios from developing. What they should under no circumstances take for granted is security in Kurdistan. Leadership matters.

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Islamic State vs. Syrian Kurds

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity and pleasure to visit Rojava, the autonomous region which Syrian Kurds have carved out by pushing out or containing Bashar al-Assad’s forces while simultaneously defeating wave after wave of Nusra Front and later Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) attacks. What the Syrian Kurds have achieved would be amazing under any circumstance; that they did so while blockaded by Turkey, the Syrian government, Iraq, and Iraqi Kurdistan (whose leader Masud Barzani opposes them for both tribal reasons and because they refuse to subordinate themselves to his leadership) is even more impressive. That Rojava has become a refuge for tens of thousands of Arab Muslims and Syrian Christians is testament to its tolerance and moderation.

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Earlier this year, I had the opportunity and pleasure to visit Rojava, the autonomous region which Syrian Kurds have carved out by pushing out or containing Bashar al-Assad’s forces while simultaneously defeating wave after wave of Nusra Front and later Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) attacks. What the Syrian Kurds have achieved would be amazing under any circumstance; that they did so while blockaded by Turkey, the Syrian government, Iraq, and Iraqi Kurdistan (whose leader Masud Barzani opposes them for both tribal reasons and because they refuse to subordinate themselves to his leadership) is even more impressive. That Rojava has become a refuge for tens of thousands of Arab Muslims and Syrian Christians is testament to its tolerance and moderation.

Largely out of deference to Turkey, the State Department has steered clear of Syrian Kurdistan, refusing to welcome its representatives to the ill-considered and ill-fated conferences in Geneva earlier this year, while choosing instead to bring in Syrian Kurdish politicians lacking any real constituency on the ground in Syria.

The U.S. position is both strategic and moral malpractice. The Assad regime has implemented, in the words of State Department official Stephen Rapp, “the kind of machinery of cruel death that we haven’t seen frankly since the Nazis.” The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, of course, has broken away from al-Qaeda because it considers that extremist group too moderate. Since renaming itself the Islamic State and taking over broad swaths of Iraq, its atrocities have been well covered by the media. That given the option between Assad or a radical Islamist group on one hand, and a secular, democratic-leaning entity on the other, President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry place the United States against the secular, democratic-leaning entity says a lot about the current moral bankruptcy infusing U.S. policy.

For months, that lack of support made life difficult for Syrian Kurds, Christians, and other citizens within Rojava. What has not been covered, however, is the all-out battle now occurring between ISIS and Syrian Kurds. Tweets from residents of the region now under ISIS attacks have also reported that the Syrian opposition has been using chemical weapons against the Kurdish population. See, for example, this account from July 9 and 10. Now, of course, just because someone tweets something does not make it true. But there is no indication the reports are false, and every indication they are true At the very least, this is a charge American and UN officials should investigate. How ironic that just over a quarter century after Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against Iraqi Kurds—and the Reagan administration remained silent because speaking up would be too diplomatically inconvenient—history seems to be repeating against Kurds once more. It’s a good thing there are now public intellectuals like Samantha Power who put their moral compass above ambition. Or not.

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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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Iraq and the End of Shame

I’m currently in Jordan, where I’ve had the opportunity to meet with a variety of Iraqi Sunnis who have come from al-Anbar to discuss the situation there. It’s rare nowadays to find any consensus on Iraq, but one observation they make coincides with observations I heard over the past year while talking to Iraqi Sunnis in Mosul and Tikrit; Iraqi Shi‘ites in Basra and Baghdad; and Iraqi Kurds in Kirkuk, Erbil, and Sulaymani. That is that one of the major problems Iraq faces is the end of shame.

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I’m currently in Jordan, where I’ve had the opportunity to meet with a variety of Iraqi Sunnis who have come from al-Anbar to discuss the situation there. It’s rare nowadays to find any consensus on Iraq, but one observation they make coincides with observations I heard over the past year while talking to Iraqi Sunnis in Mosul and Tikrit; Iraqi Shi‘ites in Basra and Baghdad; and Iraqi Kurds in Kirkuk, Erbil, and Sulaymani. That is that one of the major problems Iraq faces is the end of shame.

Politicians and generals in Iraq (and elsewhere in the Middle East) always face great temptation. They could steal millions and, indeed, some now steal billions. But before the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, and the subsequent 13 years of sanctions, Iraq was among the least corrupt Arab countries. What changed over the last 35 years has not only been the economy, but more fundamentally the culture of shame. Sure, some politicians and officers during the Republic and early Baath years were corrupt, but many resisted the temptation out of fear of how their children would inherit the shame if their parents gained a reputation for corruption or other misdeeds. Simply put, family reputation trumped a desire for immediate gratification.

No longer: I’ve written here about the problem of Middle Eastern rulers’ first sons. Iraqis nickname Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s son Ahmed “Uday” because they allege he acts like Saddam Hussein’s son. Masrour Barzani, the eldest son of Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani, acquired a $10 million mansion in suburban Virginia despite his relatively small official salary. While Barzani’s spokesman denied any connection to the property, Masrour had grown so arrogant and shameless that he held his birthday party there for close KDP associates, many of whom subsequently bragged about the event and its location.

The problem goes deeper and cuts across the political class, however. The children of many ministers think nothing of buying fancy sports cars—top-end Lamborghinis, Ferraris, and Porsches—to drive around London from their new posh flats, no matter that both Iraqis and European or American neighbors once knew them as poor and impoverished. They do not hesitate to flaunt ill-gotten wealth and care little if everyone knows they or their parents are corrupt. Other former ministers and their aides travel to Jordan, Lebanon, or even suburban Chicago and build palatial mansions after serving little more than a year or two in Iraq. Iraqis often have nothing to show for their tenure, but they do with little concern if their family names have become synonymous with corruption. Whereas a generation or two past would have felt shame for such a reputation, the new Iraqis no longer do.

Those training Arab militaries are familiar with shame going back generations. It became an impediment since it hampered and made dangerous even constructive criticism. But shame was not all bad, because it kept order in society and helped buttress basic integrity. Things have changed. It is easy for diplomats to talk about reconstructing society but when personal integrity lacks, religion or ethnicity becomes a patina and money becomes the real subject of worship, and shame disappears it is almost impossible to rebuild society. The problem is no longer Maliki, Barzani, or Nujaifi—it goes far, far deeper.

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The Complexities of Kurdish Secession

Masud Barzani, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s president, announced yesterday before the region’s rubber-stamp parliament that he would put Kurdish independence to a referendum. If the referendum goes forward—Barzani is coy about the date and seems loathe to forfeit the oil subsidies he received from southern Iraq’s oil fields which are far more lucrative than Kirkuk’s—then the Kurdish public will overwhelmingly accept it. That is their right, and if they decide to become the world’s newest state, congratulations to them. Kurds deserve statehood. (And with it, maybe Google will finally add Kurdish to the languages Google Translate covers.)

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Masud Barzani, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s president, announced yesterday before the region’s rubber-stamp parliament that he would put Kurdish independence to a referendum. If the referendum goes forward—Barzani is coy about the date and seems loathe to forfeit the oil subsidies he received from southern Iraq’s oil fields which are far more lucrative than Kirkuk’s—then the Kurdish public will overwhelmingly accept it. That is their right, and if they decide to become the world’s newest state, congratulations to them. Kurds deserve statehood. (And with it, maybe Google will finally add Kurdish to the languages Google Translate covers.)

Statehood, however, will be not the end of the story but rather its beginning, both within Kurdistan and in the region.

Within Kurdistan, Kurds will have to address a government which is both disorganized and often acts in its own self-interest rather than that of its supposed constituents. That can be dismissed as an internal matter. Ultimately quality of government is an internal Kurdish matter, though, and one which Kurds will eventually resolve whether it takes months, years, or decades. Despite Kurdistan’s impressive development over the past decade, it still lacks basic financial infrastructure. That has helped ruling party members get rich because it enables them to better hide ghost employees or skim money from those under them who owe their jobs to their patron’s influence. Kurds might also need to standardize their language and alphabet, although that too is an internal issue.

Kurdistan’s formal birth, however, will also have international reverberations. While the West sees Kurdistan moving closer to Turkey, Kurdish leaders cultivate Iran as enthusiastically for balance. Whether the United States can sway the balance or not with bases of its own is an open question, although one which President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will defer given budget constraints and a lack of appreciation of American force projection abroad.

Then there’s water: The Euphrates bypasses Kurdistan, going from Turkey through Syria and into Iraq in al-Anbar. But the Tigris (or its tributaries) cuts across Kurdistan, traverses Turkey and forms part of the Syrian-Turkish border, before it heads into central Iraq. The negotiations over its flow were complex at the best of times, when the water only needed to be divided between three countries. A fourth will only add additional complexity. That’s not Kurdistan’s problem, as they get the water before the rest of Iraq does, but as one Iraqi told me in Jordan, “We Sunnis can make nasty neighbors if you make us mad enough.”

If Kurdish independence eventually spreads beyond Iraq’s current borders, the implications will be greater. Turkey, for example, is a NATO member. It hosts a major airbase in Diyarbakir, which many Kurds see as a future capital. Even if Turkey becomes a federal, biregional state, the implications are the same as Kurds there would seek a division of resources and infrastructure.

None of this is a reason for the United States to oppose Kurdish nationhood. But it should mean planning for the day, week, and months after. None of this planning or more than the most superficial considerations has apparently yet occurred.

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Is Turkey’s Partition Inevitable?

World turmoil in 2014 increasingly recalls that of one hundred years ago as national aspirations and trans-national ambitions set the world on a path to war. I do not suggest that the world is on the verge of a catastrophe such as that unleashed when an assassin’s bullet struck down Archduke Ferdinand just over a century ago, but rather that forces now at work could fundamentally remake the map.

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World turmoil in 2014 increasingly recalls that of one hundred years ago as national aspirations and trans-national ambitions set the world on a path to war. I do not suggest that the world is on the verge of a catastrophe such as that unleashed when an assassin’s bullet struck down Archduke Ferdinand just over a century ago, but rather that forces now at work could fundamentally remake the map.

I posted earlier regarding the possibility that Iraqi Kurds may soon declare their formal independence, a move with which even Iraqi Arabs have grown ambivalent. After all, Iraq’s real oil wealth is in southern Iraq, and many Iraqi Arabs would be fine keeping that for themselves.

Syrian Kurds have been coy about their future. The Kurdish administration in “Rojava,” an autonomous zone in northeastern Syria, is relatively secure, organized, and functioning. Kurds there say they will settle for federalism within the confines of Syria, although the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham in the areas surrounding Rojava suggests that events outside their region may ultimately determine the outcome, much as it has in Iraq.

For Kurds, however, Turkey is the real prize. That is where the bulk of Kurds live, and southeastern Turkey remains an incubator of Kurdish culture. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan opened negotiations with Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which once waged an insurgency and terror campaign against the Turkish state. The PKK has accepted a ceasefire and temporarily laid down their arms. While Erdoğan has hinted that he will offer the Kurds a reform package ahead of the August presidential elections (for which he wants Kurdish support), history should not give the Kurds much confidence: every outreach Erdoğan has made to the Kurds has come against the backdrop of elections, and after elections have passed, Erdoğan reneges on his promises. Fool me once, fool me twice, but few Kurds are prepared to be fooled a third time, except perhaps against the backdrop of a fight.

Herein lies the problem: If Erdoğan makes good on his reforms to the Kurds, then it sets Turkey down the path toward federalism, the way-point for independence. Turks must also prepare for Öcalan’s release. They may consider Öcalan a terrorist, but Erdoğan has made him the indispensable man. There is simply no outcome that won’t see Öcalan released first from isolation, and then from prison entirely, at which point Kurds and many others will celebrate him as a Kurdish Mandela.

Demography, too, is in the Kurds’ favor. Erdoğan may hope that religious solidarity will trump nationalism, but this is a naïve hope. Turkish Kurds can smell a state, and with Iraqi Kurds on the verge of achieving that dream, there will be no denying Anatolian Kurds the same outcome. The map is changing. Turkey is celebrating its 90th anniversary. When it marks its centennial, however, expect the map of Turkey to be much different. When that happens, perhaps Turks can celebrate Erdoğan as their Sultan. The new Kurdistan, however, should put Erdoğan on their currency alongside Öcalan and Barzani as a man who made it happen.

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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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Partition of Iraq Won’t Solve Terrorism

As Iraq again confronts insurgency, terrorism, and political chaos, analysts and pundits have revived Joe Biden and Les Gelb’s proposal to divide Iraq in three: Kurdistan, a Sunnistan, and a Shiastan. It’s quite possible the Kurdistan will go off on its own, at least if its president, Masoud Barzani, decides that independence trumps his desire for a share of southern Iraq’s oil proceeds. That Syrian Kurdistan is also freer than it has ever been before and that Turkey is openly negotiating with the once-pariah Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) makes an independent Kurdistan far more a reality than at any time since the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. And that’s not a bad thing. Many Iraqis with whom I speak have come around to the idea that Kurdistan will go its own way; it speaks a different language, embraces a different culture, and already functions as a de facto state.

But the idea that carving a Sunni Arab state out of the remainder of Iraq will bring peace is false. Proponents of partition may believe division would be worth the human cost in ethnic cleansing—after all, the population of the ‘Sunni belt’ isn’t homogenous. And they may believe that the new Sunni state would be sustainable, even despite its dearth of natural resources, although perhaps it could survive on dates, sheep, and a rapidly depleting underground aquifer.

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As Iraq again confronts insurgency, terrorism, and political chaos, analysts and pundits have revived Joe Biden and Les Gelb’s proposal to divide Iraq in three: Kurdistan, a Sunnistan, and a Shiastan. It’s quite possible the Kurdistan will go off on its own, at least if its president, Masoud Barzani, decides that independence trumps his desire for a share of southern Iraq’s oil proceeds. That Syrian Kurdistan is also freer than it has ever been before and that Turkey is openly negotiating with the once-pariah Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) makes an independent Kurdistan far more a reality than at any time since the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. And that’s not a bad thing. Many Iraqis with whom I speak have come around to the idea that Kurdistan will go its own way; it speaks a different language, embraces a different culture, and already functions as a de facto state.

But the idea that carving a Sunni Arab state out of the remainder of Iraq will bring peace is false. Proponents of partition may believe division would be worth the human cost in ethnic cleansing—after all, the population of the ‘Sunni belt’ isn’t homogenous. And they may believe that the new Sunni state would be sustainable, even despite its dearth of natural resources, although perhaps it could survive on dates, sheep, and a rapidly depleting underground aquifer.

The problem is that simply granting the Sunni state independent or functional autonomy wouldn’t solve the radicalism problem. The issue isn’t Sunnism; it’s the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and any other Al Qaeda affiliate. If those promoting partition believe that changing borders resolves the danger posed by ISIS, then I have a unicorn to sell them. Simply granting ISIS a safe-haven in the guise of a state won’t make the problem go away, no matter how much American officials want to divorce themselves of Iraq. Nor will borders constrain ISIS. The group seeks not only Mosul, but also Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, Amman, and ultimately Istanbul and Jerusalem.

Make no mistake: partition is an interesting proposal and sparks a useful debate, and the Iraqi constitution allows for strong federalism even if not explicitly partition, but secession is no substitute for a strategy to confront, roll-back, and defeat the al-Qaeda-inspired insurgency which Iraq now faces.

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Tom Friedman, Autocratophile

Last week I was in Warsaw, taking a taxi from the airport to the hotel, when I saw a poster commemorating the 25th anniversary of the fall of Communism in Poland. I asked the taxi driver but, alas, I speak no Polish and he spoke no English. We drove past the poster and next to it I saw a short, squat man with a mustache and I thought, “Every country seems to have short, squat men with mustaches. Poland had that guy and we have Tom Friedman.”

And that led me to consider: Poland was a land under Soviet domination, a country in which people struggled for freedom, and so I wondered, “What does Tom Friedman think about freedom?” Alas, that’s an easy question to answer, but not in a good way, sort of like when the “check engine” light went on in my 2003 Nissan and I wondered what that meant as my car sputtered to a halt.

Just as babies have a soft spot on their heads (or so my Polish taxi driver probably said, although I can’t be sure because of the language barrier), Friedman has a soft spot for dictatorship. His paeans to China are both legendary and embarrassing. When Friedman was a young student and journalist, he backpacked around the Middle East and was astute in his observations. From Beirut to Jerusalem was a good book. But there is a reason why a peace corps volunteer or backpacker in Haiti have a better idea of society than tourists who book five-star trips and tend not to learn much about the troubles and travails of the societies which they visit. Taking a Royal Caribbean cruise to a private beach in Haiti does not make one an expert on Haitian politics, corruption, or earthquake reconstruction. It simply suggests one is rich. There’s nothing wrong with being rich—unless, of course, you are a senior Chinese Communist party functionary, in which case you likely got your money upon the blood of the tens of millions of people your party has murdered. But most rich people are smart enough to realize that luxury tourism doesn’t make them smart.

But then again, Tom Friedman isn’t most people. Any analyst or writer knows not to simply parachute into a country, talk to politicians for a few hours or a few days, and then wax eloquently about how enlightened and forward thinking that polity is. But, alas, Tom Friedman is not just any analyst. Earlier this month, Friedman visited Iraqi Kurdistan as a guest of Barham Salih, a Kurdish politician currently aspiring to the Iraqi presidency, if he can overcome the animosity of Hero Ibrahim Ahmed, Iraq’s current first lady. Barham gave Friedman the royal treatment. They hiked in the mountains. Kurdish journalists wrote on Facebook about seeing the two in local restaurants. Friedman gave the keynote at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani, an impressive university for which Barham deserves credit, even if it is not as free from politics as Friedman imagines.

Friedman then wrote a predictable column:

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Last week I was in Warsaw, taking a taxi from the airport to the hotel, when I saw a poster commemorating the 25th anniversary of the fall of Communism in Poland. I asked the taxi driver but, alas, I speak no Polish and he spoke no English. We drove past the poster and next to it I saw a short, squat man with a mustache and I thought, “Every country seems to have short, squat men with mustaches. Poland had that guy and we have Tom Friedman.”

And that led me to consider: Poland was a land under Soviet domination, a country in which people struggled for freedom, and so I wondered, “What does Tom Friedman think about freedom?” Alas, that’s an easy question to answer, but not in a good way, sort of like when the “check engine” light went on in my 2003 Nissan and I wondered what that meant as my car sputtered to a halt.

Just as babies have a soft spot on their heads (or so my Polish taxi driver probably said, although I can’t be sure because of the language barrier), Friedman has a soft spot for dictatorship. His paeans to China are both legendary and embarrassing. When Friedman was a young student and journalist, he backpacked around the Middle East and was astute in his observations. From Beirut to Jerusalem was a good book. But there is a reason why a peace corps volunteer or backpacker in Haiti have a better idea of society than tourists who book five-star trips and tend not to learn much about the troubles and travails of the societies which they visit. Taking a Royal Caribbean cruise to a private beach in Haiti does not make one an expert on Haitian politics, corruption, or earthquake reconstruction. It simply suggests one is rich. There’s nothing wrong with being rich—unless, of course, you are a senior Chinese Communist party functionary, in which case you likely got your money upon the blood of the tens of millions of people your party has murdered. But most rich people are smart enough to realize that luxury tourism doesn’t make them smart.

But then again, Tom Friedman isn’t most people. Any analyst or writer knows not to simply parachute into a country, talk to politicians for a few hours or a few days, and then wax eloquently about how enlightened and forward thinking that polity is. But, alas, Tom Friedman is not just any analyst. Earlier this month, Friedman visited Iraqi Kurdistan as a guest of Barham Salih, a Kurdish politician currently aspiring to the Iraqi presidency, if he can overcome the animosity of Hero Ibrahim Ahmed, Iraq’s current first lady. Barham gave Friedman the royal treatment. They hiked in the mountains. Kurdish journalists wrote on Facebook about seeing the two in local restaurants. Friedman gave the keynote at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani, an impressive university for which Barham deserves credit, even if it is not as free from politics as Friedman imagines.

Friedman then wrote a predictable column:

But it was the Kurds who used the window of freedom we opened for them to overcome internal divisions, start to reform their once Sopranos-like politics and create a vibrant economy that is now throwing up skyscrapers and colleges in major towns of Erbil and Sulaimani. Everywhere I’ve gone here, I’ve met “reverse immigrants,” Kurds who’ve come back to their homeland in northeastern Iraq because of all the opportunities.

Kurdistan represents everything that has not happened in Shiite-dominated Baghdad and the Sunni regions of Iraq, where Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has behaved like a visionless, pro-Shiite sectarian chief and violence remains rife. Maliki was “our guy.” So you could say that we left two big “gifts” behind in Iraq: an American-installed autocrat and an American university that is teaching the values of inclusiveness that Maliki doesn’t practice… Kurdistan is an island of decency in a still-roiling sea. But the power of example is a funny thing. You never know how it can spread. More American universities, please — not just drones.

Kurdistan has achieved a lot, but hagiography does not make it a beacon of freedom any more than Vogue’s profile of Asma al-Assad made the Syrian regime a beacon of progressivism. Kurdistan has not rid itself of its internal divisions; they are just more easily hidden. Both major political parties maintain their own separate security forces, much like Hamas and the PLO. Perhaps Friedman ignores this fact because he couldn’t figure out a way to blame settlements.

Friedman apparently doesn’t realize that the skyscrapers he so admires in Iraqi Kurdistan have occupancy rates of around 20 percent according to numerous Iraqi Kurds who live there. Much of the land they are built on was either appropriated by Barham’s political party or simply given as gifts to those who supported Barham’s political party. This wasn’t Barham’s fault, but it is the reality. The family of one of my former students—and, here, unlike Tom Friedman, I cannot mention name or age because in the reality of Iraqi Kurdistan, that can lead to a prison sentence—was forced from Kirkuk by Saddam, and then forced from their home by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan—Barham’s party—so that a brother-in-law of party leader Jalal Talabani could speculate in real estate.

Nor is Kurdistan really that much of a democracy. How powerful it would have been had Friedman actually given a shout-out to the young journalists—theoretically his real protégés—whose families today mourn their sons because they had the courage to write about corruption and nepotism in Iraqi Kurdistan. Barham probably did not mention that the party that he presides over and that of Masud Barzani have run death squads. That may sound harsh, but that’s the proper word for the politicized security forces sent out to kidnap and kill those who disagree. Friedman may not have been aware that the same street he drove down to get to the American University campus was the scene of a shooting by Kurdish security forces on protestors during Barham’s premiership. Barham could have resigned rather than allow his reformist reputation to serve as cover for such action, but sometimes it is easier to talk about reform than actually implement it. Regardless, the perpetrators in each case remain at large. So much for “the values of inclusiveness” that Friedman observed.

Barham is smooth but he is a political player. There’s nothing wrong with that. Politics can be healthy, especially in a country which aspires to democracy. But dirty tricks are dirty tricks. Convince a visitor to bash Maliki in a widely-read American paper? That’s good politics for someone who has tied his fortunes to Maliki’s competitors. Last year, Barham invited another writer and convinced him to criticize Kirkuk, a town which the writer had not visited but which is booming economically and happens to be governed by a man from Barham’s party who happens to be one of Barham’s chief rivals. Kudos to Barham, because he gets his point across and his guests often do not seem to realize they are being used.

True, violence is worse in Baghdad but discrimination is as bad in Kurdistan. Just ask any non-Kurd humiliated at the region’s borders. In January, I drove from Tikrit to Erbil and it wasn’t a pretty sight. Corruption is rife in both Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan. Even Friedman’s host has dabbled in business. And while Friedman castigates Maliki for taking the fight to al-Qaeda, what does he expect the prime minister to do? How luxurious it must be to criticize Baghdad’s leaders on one hand for insecurity and on the other hand for fighting to restore security. Maybe the drones would have been helpful after all.

What else did Friedman forget? In praising the Kurds, he appears unaware that rather than step down at the end of his second term, Kurdish President Masud Barzani simply extended his tenure. So much for democracy. Barzani can hire and fire ministers on a whim. They answer to him. He trumps the prime minister of Kurdistan, who happens to be his nephew, and the chief of Kurdish intelligence, who happens to be his son. Not so in Baghdad, where the nature of compromise and political pluralism means that the prime minister is saddled with ministers whom he may not trust and whom he cannot fire, even if they are incompetent, corrupt, or abusive. If he even tries, people label him autocratic. But for Friedman, autocratic in Baghdad is democratic in Kurdistan. Maliki has faults, indeed many. But at least he subjects himself to elections. But in Friedman’s world, democracy is about dictatorship and dictatorship is democracy.

Kurdistan is impressive and, I must admit that after spending time in Basra or Baghdad, it’s a pleasure to go to Sulaymani, sit in an outdoor café and have a beer or tea with friends. And to Barham’s credit, he (and current Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani) do tolerate more dissent than either Hero Ibrahim Ahmad, Masud Barzani, Masour Barzani, Falah Mustafa, Fuad Hussein, or Karim Sinjari. But for all of Kurdistan’s success, it is on a trajectory to become not a new bastion of democracy, but yet just another dictatorship. But then again, that may be what attracts Tom Friedman—or at least his subconscious—to it the most. Friedman likes making up words and catchy phrases. Perhaps he illustrates one: Autocratophile, the love of dictators.

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Will Masud Barzani Become Iraqi President?

It has now been more than a year since Iraqi President Jalal Talabani suffered a debilitating stroke. And while Kurdish authorities have recently released another photograph showing that despite persistent rumors he is still alive, the refusal to allow visitors or release any video of Talabani speaking seems to suggest that concerns about his mental and physical abilities are warranted. It is understood across the Iraqi ethnic, sectarian, and political spectrum that Talabani will not return. And while Iraqis are willing to maintain the fiction that he is still president, they have been discussing for months his successor.

Visiting Basra, Baghdad, and Kirkuk last summer, I was surprised to hear a suggestion from a wide range of officials that Masud Barzani, the head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, might take over as Iraq’s president after next year’s elections.

While it might seem illogical that Barzani would move to Baghdad, it’s actually not so farfetched. Barzani might like to depict himself as a Kurdish nationalist leader, but that’s always been more a means to an end rather than the end itself. For Barzani, power, money, and title trumps Kurdish nationalism: How else to explain Barzani inviting Saddam Hussein’s hated Republican Guards to Erbil in 1996, or more recently his efforts to undercut Kurdish autonomy in Syrian Kurdistan, or his willingness to cooperate with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to undercut Kurdish officials inside Turkey. Being president of Iraq can be a lucrative position, and Masud—who lives in a former mountaintop resort he confiscated for his own personal use—likes the finer things in life.

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It has now been more than a year since Iraqi President Jalal Talabani suffered a debilitating stroke. And while Kurdish authorities have recently released another photograph showing that despite persistent rumors he is still alive, the refusal to allow visitors or release any video of Talabani speaking seems to suggest that concerns about his mental and physical abilities are warranted. It is understood across the Iraqi ethnic, sectarian, and political spectrum that Talabani will not return. And while Iraqis are willing to maintain the fiction that he is still president, they have been discussing for months his successor.

Visiting Basra, Baghdad, and Kirkuk last summer, I was surprised to hear a suggestion from a wide range of officials that Masud Barzani, the head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, might take over as Iraq’s president after next year’s elections.

While it might seem illogical that Barzani would move to Baghdad, it’s actually not so farfetched. Barzani might like to depict himself as a Kurdish nationalist leader, but that’s always been more a means to an end rather than the end itself. For Barzani, power, money, and title trumps Kurdish nationalism: How else to explain Barzani inviting Saddam Hussein’s hated Republican Guards to Erbil in 1996, or more recently his efforts to undercut Kurdish autonomy in Syrian Kurdistan, or his willingness to cooperate with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to undercut Kurdish officials inside Turkey. Being president of Iraq can be a lucrative position, and Masud—who lives in a former mountaintop resort he confiscated for his own personal use—likes the finer things in life.

The Iranian government, for its part, is also in favor of a Barzani presidency. Their reason, according to various Iraqi politicians, is more Machiavellian: If Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is seen as Tehran’s man in Baghdad (an exaggerated characterization as Maliki is an Iraqi nationalist, but he does listen and consider quite carefully what the Iranians say), then Nechirvan Barzani, currently the prime minister in Iraqi Kurdistan, is Iran’s man in Erbil, paying as much deference if not more to Qods Force chief Qasim Suleimani and the other powers that be in Tehran as Maliki does. If Masud Barzani goes to Baghdad, and the Kurds eliminate the presidency in favor of a stronger premiership, then the Islamic Republic figures it’s game, set, match in Iraq, with Masud Barzani shunted off to some honorary position. That U.S. officials also find Nechirvan (and Maliki) professionals seems to suggest that both have the support of the powers whose opinion still counts in Iraq.

Masud is being coy, but he seems to want the job. He is term-limited, and his second term as president should have ended several months ago. He has illegally extended his term to remain president for a couple more years, but that might simply be to wait until the spot formally opens in Baghdad. Certainly, Barzani’s rivals would be glad to have him out of Kurdistan, be it for selfish reasons or because Barzani’s tribal mentality has always held back more progressive forces.

There are problems with such a scenario. It’s bad for Iraq, for it confirms—in the word of one Iraqi official—the transactional nature of Iraqi politics, and sets Iraq down the path of the Lebanon model of confessional (and ethnic) politics. And Barzani does not have Talabani’s talent. He seldom sees the big picture and often exacerbates conflict rather than calms it. Many Sunni Arabs may be upset that they will not achieve the presidency, even if Usama al-Nujayfi wields more power as speaker of parliament. Masud’s eldest son Masrour might also cause trouble if left out: He sees himself as a natural successor to his father, and would object to the far more talented Nechirvan Barzani effectively becoming the kingmaker in Kurdistan.

It’s a game of thrones right now in Iraq, and it looks like Masud Barzani might win the title of which he’s always dreamed, even if the reason has less to do with his individual talents and more to do with others seeking to rise up in his place. While Maliki’s reelection remains uncertain (another sign that Iraq is not the dictatorship some claim; not too many autocrats have to fight for their political lives at the ballot box), Barzani’s new role at this point in time seems a sure thing. Whether the United States is ready for that scenario: well, that’s another question whose answer is far from clear.

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Another Journalist Murdered in Kurdistan

Iraqi Kurdistan is often described as Iraq’s bright spot, a region enjoying both security and democracy. Certainly, the region is more secure than Baghdad since, with only occasional exceptions, al-Qaeda-affiliated groups have given it a pass. Praise for Kurdish democracy has also been highly exaggerated. Opposition parties are more active and there have been more successive political transitions in southern and central Iraq, especially in provincial elections, than in Kurdistan.

The real blight on Iraqi Kurdistan, however, has been its treatment of the press. Corruption is rife in Iraqi Kurdistan, as it is in Iraq itself. In both portions of Iraq, the press has sought to tackle the problem. In Kurdistan, however, that is often a fatal task. On the evening of December 5, Kawar Germyani was gunned down outside his home in Kalar. Germyani was the editor-in-chief of Rayal, and a contributor to Awene (a journal for which, full disclosure, I occasionally contribute). He becomes the third journalist murdered in five years. Despite the Kurdish Regional Government’s rhetoric of security, none of the killers have been brought to justice. Germyani had previously sued Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) politburo member Mahmud Sangawy for threatening the writer’s life after a corruption expose. When Sangawy refused to obey the court summons, he suffered no consequences.

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Iraqi Kurdistan is often described as Iraq’s bright spot, a region enjoying both security and democracy. Certainly, the region is more secure than Baghdad since, with only occasional exceptions, al-Qaeda-affiliated groups have given it a pass. Praise for Kurdish democracy has also been highly exaggerated. Opposition parties are more active and there have been more successive political transitions in southern and central Iraq, especially in provincial elections, than in Kurdistan.

The real blight on Iraqi Kurdistan, however, has been its treatment of the press. Corruption is rife in Iraqi Kurdistan, as it is in Iraq itself. In both portions of Iraq, the press has sought to tackle the problem. In Kurdistan, however, that is often a fatal task. On the evening of December 5, Kawar Germyani was gunned down outside his home in Kalar. Germyani was the editor-in-chief of Rayal, and a contributor to Awene (a journal for which, full disclosure, I occasionally contribute). He becomes the third journalist murdered in five years. Despite the Kurdish Regional Government’s rhetoric of security, none of the killers have been brought to justice. Germyani had previously sued Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) politburo member Mahmud Sangawy for threatening the writer’s life after a corruption expose. When Sangawy refused to obey the court summons, he suffered no consequences.

The PUK’s targeting of journalists and its efforts to muzzle free speech are problematic for other reasons: The American University of Iraq, Sulaimani declares its political independence, but employees and students say they must be mindful of PUK sensitivities. That senior PUK officials involved in the university have yet to condemn the murder is more troubling still.

Iraqi Kurdistan could yet become a shining beacon, but it will never match its politicians’ rhetoric or its citizens’ hopes so long as the price for reporting on the activities of senior political party members is death. Unfortunately, while the United States has no leverage in Iraq or Iraqi Kurdistan following its withdrawal, its silence amidst the murder of journalists seems to be interpreted by nominally pro-American parties like Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan as a license to kill. Alas, the problem is not limited to Kurdistan. American progressives and Middle Easterners both hoped that President Barack Obama’s administration would usher in new attention to human rights and liberal values in the Middle East. That his commitment to human rights and liberty were rhetorical only is underscored by the fact of the tremendous decline in free press across the region, not only in Kurdistan, but also in Turkey, Egypt, Bahrain, and elsewhere.

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