Barzani's arrogance has damaged Kurdish hopes for independence

Barzani's arrogance has damaged Kurdish hopes for independence
5 min read
22 Nov, 2017
Comment: Ex-President Masoud Barzani was the force driving a referendum that was doomed to fail - and ultimately ruined long-term chances for independence, writes Gareth Browne.
Barzani was the driving force behind Kurdistan's referendum [AFP]
"If the referendum fails, I am ready to take full responsibility" - those were the words of Kurdish President Masoud Barzani, just days before the now ill-fated referendum.

Nobody saw the near total collapse of the KRG in the wake of September's referendum coming - particularly Barzani himself.

Now the ex-president is desperately attempting to row back on his words, deflecting blame and responsibility for the referendum's failure onto just about everyone but himself. So far he has blamed America, Baghdad, Iran - people close to him have even compared Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi to Saddam Hussein.

In a speech broadcast on the 29 October, the 71-year-old, who has been synonymous with the Kurdish cause for decades appeared to begrudgingly announce he would not seek an extension to his current presidential term, but with presidential elections scheduled for last month not having taken place, there was no roadmap to his replacement.

His final act as president was to redistribute many of the presidency's powers between his nephew Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, and his son Masrour, who currently heads the KRG's security council.

The reckless decision was pushed through by Masoud and Masrour, whilst Nechirvan was more hesitant, and put greater value on the KRG's relationships with former allies.

I am very proud that we have given that opportunity to the Kurdistani people to express their vote, and I do not regret that

Once important, though overstated, allies of the US in the fight against Islamic State, there was an undeniable culture of dogmatism in Erbil, both at the street and elite levels, that the US would never abandon the Kurds.


But as storm clouds gathered following the landslide vote, and federal forces converged on Kirkuk, it became evident that uncle Sam wasn't going to bail out the Barzanis.

Kirkuk and its oil fields returned to Baghdad's control, and almost 50 percent of areas under Kurdish control were also retaken by federal government forces - the Peshmerga barely put up a fight.

In pushing through the referendum, and turning down an 11th hour offer tabled by Rex Tillerson and British ambassador Frank Baker, Barzani succeeded in alienating his key international allies.

Read more: Iraqi Kurdish politics undergoing momentous changes

And it was Barzani's arrogance that convinced him they would soon come round, when it became evident the extent to which the referendum was a landslide.

He was wrong, advisors who warned senior figures against the referendum were ignored, or shut out of the decision making process. Barzani was only interested in hearing the voices that agreed with him.

This was the case for many of the past few years: Journalists writing favourably of the KRG and Peshmerga were given right of way when it came to access. Those more skeptical of the Barzani project were shouted down for being unsympathetic to the Kurds' plight under Saddam Hussein. In the real world of Middle Eastern geopolitics, echo chambers often make for an undignified ending.


Though now a nominally resigned president, Barzani's reign endures through other means, and with that too his arrogance - something that will likely cost the Kurds again in the future. He chairs the Referendum Committee, which at best, retains a murky legal status.

Through his loyal son Masrour, he also controls some of the KRG's most important security and intelligence apparatus - this is a state within a state.

In an interview with NPR, he declared "we are going to have a very serious revising of the relationship [with the US]".

Calling into question the Kurds' most important foreign relationship is hardly the action of a resigning leader. In fact, it is the behaviour of a despot desperate to rescue his legacy.

When Baghdad came to take back Kirkuk, the Kurds had no friends

Nor is there any sign of regret; - no willingness to acknowledge that his approach has failed.

As he told NPR: "I am very proud of the result [of the referendum]. 

"I am very proud that we have given that opportunity to the Kurdistani people to express their vote, and I do not regret that."

The dogmatic approach the KRG's leadership has adopted in the past few years has been a categorical failure. As a result, when Baghdad came to take back Kirkuk, the Kurds had no friends.

The KRG in Iraq built up slowly since 1991, and has all but collapsed in just a few weeks. Yet if Masoud Barzani's mentality continues to prevail, there is no clear means by which the Kurds can regain the sort of autonomy they enjoyed in the post-Saddam years.

There may be hope. The manner in which President Barzani has thus far divvied up the presidential office's powers suggest an increased role for his nephew, Nechirvan.

Nechirvan will likely attempt to rebuild the Kurdish relationship with both regional and global powers, from Turkey to the United States.

Kurdish Iraq is a landlocked area, it is entirely at the mercy of its neighbours for both survival and prosperity. Nechirvan recognises this, whereas his uncle does not.

Releasing the reins of the KRG is an extremely bitter prospect for Masoud Barzani, but he must recognise that any future bid for independence must revolve not around the legacy of the Barzani family, but around the desire of the Kurdish people.

Gareth Browne is a freelance reporter formerly based in Erbil. He has been reporting from the front lines in the battle to retake Mosul from the Islamic State group and recently visited Baghdad to study the legacy of the US-led invasion. 

Follow him on Twitter: @BrowneGareth

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.