A difficult path lies ahead for Masoud Barzani and northern Iraq. Barzani resigned from the presidency last week. But his family and party will still be power brokers in the region, even as his opponents become more assertive.
Barzani’s September independence referendum in northern Iraq has left a political vacuum in the mostly Kurdish-populated region. His failure to gain political momentum in the region invoked previous unsuccessful Kurdish independence attempts. “The political situation is now chaotic in northern Iraq. Nobody knows what will be next in the region,” said Avni Lutfioglu, a Turkmen activist and writer from the disputed Iraqi city of Kirkuk.
Despite a cloud of uncertainty, one thing that is sure is the diminished influence of Barzani and his Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). Barzani had led the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) since 2005 and wanted to seal his leadership with the independence bid. This backfired badly.
Although Iraqi Kurds overwhelmingly supported the move by Barzani’s government, the international community — with the exception of Israel — opposed the referendum. Following the referendum, the Iraqi army, supported by the Iranian-backed mainly Shia Hashd al Shaabi militia marched to oil-rich Kirkuk and the other disputed regions that have been occupied by the KRG since 2014.
When the Iraqi army and its allies were taking over the areas held by the KRG in October, most of the Peshmerga forces under Barzani’s command did not put up a fight and withdrew. The Iraqi central government forces easily captured the disputed areas. The KRG also lost most of the border crossings it controlled. Most recently, it transferred its most strategic and distant border crossing with Turkey to the Iraqi central forces. This was with Turkey’s blessing. Indeed, Turkish army units assisted the Iraqi forces with their takeover of the crossing from the KRG authorities.
Facing defeat on all fronts, Barzani resigned from the presidency on November 1. The presidential and parliamentary elections due to be held on November 1 have been delayed for at least eight months. He issued a statement saying that he transferred his powers to the regional parliament, the prime minister and the commanders of the security forces.
Yet Barzani and his family aren’t exactly giving up power completely. “In practice, his family is still in charge [of northern Iraqi issues]. KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani is his nephew. Masrour Barzani, the head of security forces, is his son. He transferred his powers to his family,” Lutfioglu told TRT World.
Barzani’s resignation seems to make a lot of countries, from the US to Iran and Turkey — the last two having sizeable Kurdish populations — happy. His Kurdish opponents also likely feel liberated from Barzani’s legacy, which was mostly earned by his legendary father, Mullah Mustafa Barzani. His decision to resign is an especially surprising development in the context of Kurdish history. No well-known Kurdish leaders have withdrawn from power willingly.
Kurdish leaders like his father — and his nemesis, Jalal Talabani — were lifelong leaders of their respective movements. Qazi Muhammad, the founder of the first modern Kurdish state, the Mahabad Kurdish Republic, was hanged by the Iranian authorities after his short-lived republic was crushed by Iranian security forces in 1947.
Kurdish political factionalism
Barzani apparently wanted to choose a different path. This wasn’t the case until the referendum forced him into a corner. His own term has officially expired in 2013. He refused, however, to abide by the governance rules of Iraq’s Kurdish leadership brokered by the Americans in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. With the help of Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), he was able to extend his term by two more years.
In 2015, he no longer had support from the PUK. Barzani’s second term extension was opposed by most of the Kurdish parties, including the PUK, and as a result there was political gridlock in the regional Kurdish parliament in Erbil. The KRG election commission — under pressure from Barzani — delayed the elections indefinitely. Many blamed Barzani for his political manoeuvring to stay in power. They were frustrated with Barzani’s unwillingness to compromise, yet he had little reason to do so at a time when the power of anti-Barzani sentiment in northern Iraq was not so widespread.
Neither was the anti-Barzani Kurdish sentiment so clear when Barzani announced a hasty independence referendum last June. The Gorran Movement, which is a splinter group of the PUK and the second most powerful party in the regional parliament, vehemently opposed the independence referendum. The PKK leadership from the Qandil Mountains also declared its opposition. But Barzani paid little heed to their opposition, probably thinking that he had enough leverage to sway the Kurdish political landscape in his favour by promising to make a long-held Kurdish dream a reality.
His main rival, Talabani, was too ill to interfere with his plan and passed away a few days after the referendum. Most of the Talabani family members didn’t voice opposition to the referendum. Neither did the PUK leadership. But that didn’t mean either the family or the party supported the measure wholeheartedly. Before his two extended terms, Barzani was supposed to transfer power to the Suleymaniye-based Kurdish leadership dominated by the PUK and Gorran.
Barzani was a close ally of Turkey until the referendum, while the PUK and Gorran were known as being allies to Iran. Barzani’s KDP and Talabani’s PUK maintain their own peshmerga forces and intelligence networks in their respective regions. The KDP controls most of northwestern Iraq, which neighbours Turkey, and PUK controls northeastern Iraq, which neighbours Iran.
KDP-PUK-Gorran collaboration in the regional parliament was also problematic. Barzani banned Gorran deputies from Erbil, preventing them from participating in parliamentary sessions regarding the dispute over his term extension in 2015. He subsequently suspended parliamentary sessions altogether.
The PUK’s ambiguous silence and Gorran’s open opposition to the referendum has already heralded a kind of post-referendum showdown. That showdown broke down rapidly and unexpectedly at a crucial moment in Kurdish political history.
In October, the Iraqi army was marching towards Kirkuk, which has a mixed population of Turkmen, Arabs, and Kurds, and has been called a mini-Iraq. They did so with Iranian, as well as Turkish, support. The peshmerga military command of the city, which was regionally under Barzani leadership but factionally belonging to the PUK, suddenly collapsed. This was especially significant since some Kurds belonging to the PUK see the city as their “Jerusalem.” They allegedly pulled out in accordance with an agreement brokered by Iran’s powerful General Qassem Soleimani.
Barzani was hoping that the peshmergas would enthusiastically join and fight, and that this would inspire support Kurdish society, making the city a battleground for the independence cause. He believed that this would eventually lead to calls from the international community to the Baghdad government to stop fighting, strengthening his hand. But this proved to be a serious miscalculation. The reverse happened.
“There was a tripartite plan prepared and implemented by Turkey, Iran and Iraq with the blessing of Western allies, about the future of the Kurdistan Region,” said Sheik Salar al Hafeed, a prominent member of the Berzenci family, an influential family in Sulaymaniyah.
As Barzani resigned from his presidential post under both international pressure and efforts by his political rivals at home, he blamed Talabani’s peshmerga forces for what he viewed as a betrayal.
“Some officials from the PUK backed the plot [of the peshmergas’ withdrawal from Kirkuk] in acts of great historical betrayal against Kurdistan and the martyrs [referring to Kurdish rebels who died in various uprisings against Saddam] — especially those from the PUK’s struggle. Their figures withdrew and surrendered sensitive areas to the Popular Mobilisation Forces [Iranian-backed Hashd al Shaabi] and Iran’s Quds Force without a fight,” said the General Command of Peshmerga Forces in an October 17 statement, when the crucial withdrawal happened.
On 16 Oct, PMF - part of Iranian Quds Force, backed by Iraqi forces, conducted a large-scale operation on Kirkuk and surrounding areas. pic.twitter.com/IZz0bb8H64— Peshmerga Command (@GCPFKurdistan) October 17, 2017
But the PUK leadership will likely remind him what happened back in the days of the Kurdish civil war in 1996. When the PUK-led peshmergas captured Erbil from Barzani’s forces, he called the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein for assistance against the PUK. Saddam gladly accepted the offer and sent his 30,000-strength troops to northern Iraq. They fought against the PUK’s charismatic military leader, Kosrat Rasul, and his peshmergas. Hundreds of them were killed by Saddam’s army. Hundreds of others were executed after capture. Saddam's forces left the region after reinstating Barzani and his KDP in Erbil. Being put in power by Saddam was especially controversial given Saddam’s gassing of Kurds in Halepce in 1988.
Barzani’s political alternatives
Twenty years later, Rasul, in his position as the most powerful peshmerga commander and vice-president of KRG, seems to be the only focal point between the KDP and the PUK. The same peshmerga statement blamed PUK peshmergas for “abandoning Kosrat Rasul and his forces in the process.” Having been the region’s most powerful military leader, Rasul is also acting as a sort of de facto leader of northern Iraq. He is too ill, however, to operate in a fully-fledged fashion.
It’s clear that the PUK, backed by Iran, is now well-positioned to get the upper hand in the region as Barzani’s power base has continued to erode. But to take over leadership, they need to find common ground with their own powerful splinter group, the Gorran.
In any scenarios, Iran, which has already extended its reach across the Middle East beyond Baghdad to Damascus and Beirut, will also increase its presence in northern Iraq. Iran’s Shia allies, led by the Iraqi military, totally took over Mosul from Daesh in June, as well as Kirkuk from KRG forces this month. Both cities are located in northern Iraq.
Another political scenario could be the emergence of two autonomous Kurdish regions in northern Iraq. One could be based in Erbil, led by Barzani’s KDP, and the other in Suleymaniyah, led by the PUK. “Some political circles argue that there could be two different Kurdish governments. In this scenario, city assemblies should be strengthened and every city should manage its own issues in the loosely organised KRG-held territories. It is an old political thesis,” Lutfioglu said.
The region could also return to the original type of power-sharing agreement between the PUK and the KDP, mediated by the US in 1998. The region’s autonomous nature goes back to the1990s. Following the First Gulf War in 1991, Americans and their Western allies established a no-fly-zone over the 36th parallel in northern Iraq, preventing Saddam’s air force from flying over the region. This laid the ground for a Kurdish entity to emerge.
Barzani appears to have overplayed his hand in recent years, exploiting the power-sharing deal to his own political advantage. This angered his American allies, who did not like the referendum idea and opposed it publicly. But at the same time, they did not want to kill all Kurdish independence hopes.
The US Senate's Democratic minority leader, Chuck Schumer, released a statement two days after the referendum vote, supporting the independence bid. “I believe the Kurds should have an independent state as soon as possible and that the position of the US government should be to support a political process that addresses the aspirations of the Kurds for an independent state,” Schumer said.
Perhaps the Americans would completely support an independence bid if a mature Kurdish leadership were in place, one comfortable with power-sharing, which could rally most of Iraq’s Kurdish population behind its authority. That leadership can seemingly not be ensured by Barzani’s one-man rule.
Barzani was angry about American policy towards his independence drive, questioning American intentions in Kirkuk during the Iraqi operation. “Our people should now question whether the US was aware of Iraq’s attack and why they did not prevent it,” Barzani said in his resignation speech on October 29. The White House welcomed Barzani’s decision to resign after the failed independence attempt.
For Barzani, seeking Turkish support could now be his only exit strategy. But the Turkish state, long his most reliable ally, has been frustrated with Barzani’s recent shift to independence without consulting with them. The referendum process was determined “without a prior consultation or meeting,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said. “It is a betrayal to our country in a time period when our bonds were at their best level in history.”
Another Barzani, KRG PM Nechirvan Barzani, has been aggressively trying to approach Erdogan in recent weeks, Turkish media reports recounted, after his uncle’s resignation.
Erdogan dismissed his efforts saying “He is not my equal,” according to Turkish reports — a sign that the Barzani-based political structure, as a whole, may well struggle to rebuild trust.