Masoud Barzani and Kurdish Independence

Updated: Aug 28, 2019

By: Calum Turnbull

Dressed in his traditional green fatigues; the preferred costume of peshmerga fighters, Masoud Barzani sits staring directly down the camera lens. This is the culmination of his entire political career, the dreams and efforts of his father, and the aspirations of the Kurdish people.

Barzani is announcing the results of the 2017 independence referendum; “You, the people of Kurdistan, you did not allow your will to be broken” (ABC, 2017) he announces deadpan. The result was an astounding victory; official statistics would show a 93% yes vote for Kurdish independence (Huff, 2018).

The stage was set for immediate negotiations to bring about the formal establishment of sovereignty for the world’s largest stateless nation.

Barzani would have led his people to independence after fighting countless wars and inching towards it for over 50 years.

Instead Barzani would resign as president of Iraqi-Kurdistan in just over one month after his victory speech, his great hope once more subsumed by the realities of global politics.

Barzani had lived through Kurdish independence once in the past. Born on the 16th of August 1946 in the hills of northern Iran, Barzani’s birth coincided with the short-lived independence of the Republic of Mahabad.

A Soviet puppet designed to impede Western influence in Iran, it was the last attempt at an independent Kurdish state.

Masoud Barzani’s father Mustafa Barzani was the minister of defence and commander of the armies of the republic. A bold and charismatic leader Mustafa proved himself an effective commander as his forces squared off against the Iranian army.

But as the Soviet Union cut ties with the secessionist state, Iranian forces soon overwhelmed Kurdish arms. The Republic of Mahabad was crushed and its revolutionaries harshly punished, it had lasted just over a year (TIME, 2017).

The Barzani clan fled to the USSR before returning to their native Iraq. During this period Mustafa Barzani met with Soviet officials and worked to restore the Kurdish movement while in exile.

In his absence the first congress of Iraqi-Kurdistan’s principal political movement was held in Baghdad. The 1946 session of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) sought to distil Kurdistan’s political essence, and elected Mustafa to its presidency (Gunter, 1996).

When Mustafa returned to Iraq in the late 1950s, he took the reigns of a newly unified political movement.

It was in 1961 when Mustafa Barzani first led the KDP to revolt against Baghdad. The following year a 16 year old Masoud would leave school to join his father in the armed struggle (TIME, 2017).

However, the revolt did not last much longer. In 1965 Mustafa signed a peace accord with Baghdad, ending the fighting. The result was controversial, and the leftist faction of the KDP who already resented the Barzani clan’s tribalist conservatism took up arms against him (Gunter, 1996).

Mustafa fought back and quickly expelled them from the Kurdish controlled areas of Iraq. This success consolidated his power and saw increased support from abroad; most notably from Iran.

Though the following years saw the significant growth of the KDP’s peshmerga militias to 20,000 Iranian equipped fighters and a second revolt in 1970 did not go as planned (Gunter, 1996).

Mustafa was forced to surrender, and would later die in exile in 1979. The burial would take place in northern Iran, in the hills of that once housed the Republic of Mahabad. Flown in from the military hospital where he died, Mustafa’s funeral was attended by thousands of Iraqi-Kurd refugees from a nearby refugee camp.

An obituary in the New York Times read that on his deathbed Mustafa “remarked that the name of his guerrillas, the Peshmerga, means ‘forward to death,’ and that after him would come others— in Iran, Iraq and elsewhere in Kurdistan — until Kurds achieved sarbasti— freedom” (New York Times, 1979). Shortly afterwards his son Masoud would be appointed as president of the KDP.

However, as Kurdish fighters fled the failed uprising many found their way to the exiled leftist leaders who Mustafa had ejected.

In 1975 this new group consolidated to be the newly crowned Barzani’s greatest rival; the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) (Gunter, 1996).

Rejecting the KDP’s tribal politics and embracing Marxist ideology, the new party returned to Iraq over the coming years.

From 1980 the Iran-Iraq War once more spiralled the region into chaos. KDP peshmerga fighters fought alongside the Iranian Revolutionary Guard against the regime of Saddam Hussein.

Launching attacks from bases in Iran it resulted in terrible atrocities being committed against the Kurds by Saddam Hussein, soon earning him the title of the “Butcher of Baghdad” (The Baltimore Sun, 2003).

The secular PUK, at first wary of Iranian fundamentalism attempted to reproach Baghdad, was drawn into conflict with the KDP. As the war drew on and the atrocities of Saddam continued to get worse, both parties realised the benefits of forming a united front against Baghdad now that Iranian support could no longer be relied upon (Gunter, 1996).

Putting their differences aside, the two parties formed the Iraqi Kurdistan Front (IKF) in 1988, a coalition in which Masoud Barzani and the leader of the PUK were co-presidents.

The problems the IKF had to face were significant; Iraqi-Kurdistan had been decimated during the war, and Saddam Hussein’s regime had used chemical weapons and ethnic cleansing against the Kurdish people of northern Iraq.

The ongoing atrocities drew international attention, and when the First Gulf War commenced in 1990, the IKF believed that support would be provided to a general Kurdish uprising. Harsh fighting and further atrocities ensued, resulting in a US no-fly zone being established over the region.

The result would be that in 1991 Saddam was forced to concede the establishment of the Kurdish Regional Government that would rule autonomously from Erbil.

However, the new autonomy created tensions within the IKF. The power sharing arrangement quickly turned into a power struggle and relations once more drew to a boiling point.

In 1993 a full-scale civil war between the two parties erupted with Baghdad supplying each in order to better continue the conflict.

The most decisive decision of the conflict was in 1996 when in an attempt to gain the upper hand, Barzani called upon Saddam for aid. When Barzani retook Erbil that same year, it was not with the peshmerga, but with columns of Iraqi tanks and artillery pieces (Reuters, 2017).

The decision “for military help against fellow Kurds to the man dedicated to wiping every trace of Kurdish life off the face of the earth” (New York Times, 1996) would mar his political career for the rest of his life.

Eventually the conflict was resolved through a US brokered peace agreement in 1998 and the PUK and KDP decided once more to share power in the region. In the aftermath of the American invasion in 2003, this arrangement developed into a pluralistic democratic system of sorts.

The PUK and KDP would form rival political parties and compete in free elections in 2004, with Barzani being appointed president of the Kurdistan Regional Government in 2005; but the government apparatuses remained divided among the peshmerga of the rival factions.

Both the PUK and KDP have command of their own armies, intelligence services, and divide the finance ministry to ensure separate revenue streams (Gunter, 2011).

This arrangement suits both groups, and the Barzani clan has made full use of it to expand their own financial interests, though it has led to frustration among many of the non-aligned citizens of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Barzani, by the mid-2000s, had cemented his position as the president of autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan.

After the bloody conflict with the PUK relations had settled and the power sharing arrangements worked to satisfy both parties, though no further push was made to assert independence during these initial years.

This was likely due to the ongoing presence of coalition forces in Iraq that would work decisively to support the newly installed government in Baghdad.

Additionally there seemed to be a lack of international support for a renewed push, as unlike the situation during the early 1990s, the region was at peace and had some semblance of self-determination.

Regardless, the dream of an independent Kurdistan never strayed too far from Iraqi Kurdistan’s political consciousness. Barzani would bring up independence multiple times in the ensuing years, and reportedly told George W. Bush in 2006; “what Baghdad has done against the people of the Kurdistan Region [throughout history]...had Washington DC done the same to the people of Texas, you would have never returned to Washington DC” (Kurdistan24, 2017).

In 2014, Iraqi-Kurdistan’s political fortunes once more shifted in the favour of eventual independence. As the Islamic State (ISIS) advanced against the Iraqi Army, a mass route ensued leaving much of the northern part of Iraq devoid of government troops.

As Baghdad scrambled to defend its southern cities as ISIS advanced across the desert, the peshmerga fighters of Kurdistan served as the last bulwark against the tide.

Moving decisively, Kurdish fighters moved into the abandoned city of Kirkuk (a city long disputed by Baghdad and Erbil) and halted ISIS from advancing north of its largest city Mosul (The New Yorker, 2017). The Kurdish Regional Government under the leadership of Barzani would become the principal ally of a new US-led coalition formed to combat ISIS.

After leading the KDP to victory first against Baghdad, then against the PUK and finally in the fight against ISIS, Barzani was finally in a position where the world could no longer ignore the Kurdish struggle for freedom.

But it was not without a cost. His victories in Kurdish power struggles had led him to consolidate power significantly. The compromises made with Saddam Hussein’s regime meant that he was tainted with the tyrant’s legacy.

Additionally, his family had been granted positions of power across the autonomous region; with his nephew as prime minister and son as intelligence chief. This rightly angered the PUK who saw their power being diminished by the Barzani clan.

The Kurdish people were also growing restless after over forty years of Masoud’s leadership. His family had appropriated much of the wealth of Kurdish oil reserves, and seemed more interested in securing dynastic succession than dealing with the region’s endemic problems (Washington Post, 2015).

From 2015 a new political party by the name of Gorran sought to remake Kurdish politics; it had a renewed focus on democratic processes and a disdain for the clan-structure and militancy of the KDP and PUK.

It’s success during the 2015 elections in part fuelled the mass street protests that broke out in 2015 with calls for Barzani to resign the presidency (Washington Post, 2015). Barzani resisted the calls but conceded that “the day we have an independent Kurdistan, I will cease to be the president of that Kurdistan” (Al-Monitor, 2016).

If he was to secure his legacy as the father of an independent Kurdish state, it would have to be soon.

In December of 2016 Barzani announced the independence referendum. A politician all to well versed in international politics and relations with Baghdad, he was careful to avoid the perception that the referendum would lead to an immediate unilateral declaration of independence.

Instead it would provide the basis for renewed negotiations with Baghdad over the Kurdish question, and hopefully with new found support from the US government.

The announcement was met with immediate derision by not only Baghdad but also Ankara and Tehran, government’s that were nervous about the ambitions of their own Kurdish populations. Despite years of courting relations with the Erdogan government (Barzani went so far as to adorn a suit and tie to sign a trade deal in 2015) (Al Jazeera, 2013) and fighting alongside the Revolutionary Guard in the Iran-Iraq War, the rhetoric was unequivocal.

Shortly after the referendum Erdogan announced on live TV: “It will be over when we close the oil taps, all (their) revenues will vanish, and they will not be able to find food when our trucks stop going to northern Iraq” (Reuters 2016).

Even the US were lukewarm to the democratic process, refusing to give any sanction to talks between Erbil and Baghdad (Foreign Policy, 2017). However, it was the actions of Barzani’s oldest regional relationship that would be the final nail in his political coffin; Iran’s intervention was decisive.

Hassan Shateri, the commander of the Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force and Iran’s head spymaster arrived in Iraqi Kurdistan three weeks after Barzani’s victory speech.

He was not arriving to discuss with the Kurdish leader future defence arrangements or lobby Iranian interests with the regional government.

Instead he visited the city of Sulaimaniya and the leaders of Barzani’s biggest rival; the PUK (The New Yorker, 2017).

The PUK still sour over their loss during the Kurdish civil war, and wary of Barzani’s drive for independence were a receptive audience for Iranian promises.

It was on the eve of the referendum that a former US ambassador to Iraq warned “different factions of the PUK are in no way disposed to independence, because for them that would be the sanction for total KDP dominance” (Foreign Policy, 2016), now it appeared they were willing to halt it entirely.

With promises of money, oil smuggling routes, and finally doing away with their greatest foe, there were enticements for what was to come (The New Yorker, 2017). What may have been a more pressing inducement were the thousands of Iranian-led Iraqi popular mobilisation forces south of Kurdish occupied Kirkuk.

These forces had been amassing since the referendum, and were now poised to retake the city one way or another.

After Shateri’s visit, peshmerga forces of the PUK began slipping away from their outposts in the city. Now left in an indefensible position the KDP forces soon followed as the Iraqi militias advanced. Shortly thereafter Iraqi Humvees entered the city replacing the Kurdish flags with their own.

The result of this was to show that should a violent conflict erupt with Baghdad, it would likely result in the involvement of Iran and a second civil war amongst the KDP and PUK. This harsh reality was compounded by border closures of Iran and Turkey, as well as the closure of Kurdish airspace by the Iraqi government.

The situation was untenable, and there remained only one option to retreat from disaster. On October 30th 2017, Masoud Barzani resigned from the presidency he had held for the previous 12 years leaving no replacement (The Independent, 2017).

The career of one of modern history’s greatest would-be independence leaders was over.

On the 10th of June 2019 Masrour Barzani, the former prime minister of the region, was sworn into the position made absent by his uncle two years earlier.

Two days later the former intelligence chief Nechirvan Barzani, Masoud’s son, was made prime minister (Arab Watch, 2019).

The appointments herald the passing of the torch in the Barzani clan and the securing of its political dynasty for the foreseeable future.

It is unlikely that the conditions for independence will be as favourable as they were in 2017, with Kurdistan playing such a pivotal role in US foreign policy and Baghdad suffering its own crises, but the failure of the referendum has ensured that no new government will be broaching the subject for some time.

Masoud Barzani, now 73, will likely still play a pivotal role in Kurdish politics as the patriarch of the Barzani clan. However, he will never again hold the personal power and authority he did as president.

Discredited for his politics, and now disdained for his failure, he will likely live out his days as a quiet advisor to the new leaders of Iraqi Kurdistan. It is anyone’s guess whether he or his successors will see an independent Kurdistan in their lifetimes.


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