Commentary Magazine


Topic: Masoud Barzani

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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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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Should Kurds Still Seek Iraq’s Presidency?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why Hasn’t Kurdistan Declared Independence?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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