Barzani’s “Kurdistan:” Solutions to a Problem or Problem with No Solution?
By LTC Sargis Sangari and Steven Weingartner
On Monday 5 March NEC-SC reported on clashes that took place recently at the Khanasore complex in the Sinjar area between rival Kurdish groups. The Khanasore complex controls a strategic crossroads between Syria, Iraq, and Turkey. The fighting pitted the PKK-supported Sinjar Protection Units (SPU), mostly composed of Yazidis, against Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) units of Rojava Peshmerga, mostly composed of Syrian Arabs and Kurds. Both sides suffered an undisclosed number of killed and wounded.
We reported that “the clash started when the Rojava Peshmerga units tried to forcibly enter the Khanasore complex, which is under SPU command and control.” According to SPU leader Saed Hassan, “the Peshmerga wanted to take control of the Khanasor complex, and . . . this move came on the heels of President Masud Barzani’s visit to Turkey.”
The fight over the complex took place just hours before Iraqi special forces units, supported by coalition advisors, started an operation to capture or kill key ISIS leaders in west Mosul. The operation was compromised as a result of the Khanasore battle, which opened a window for the exfiltration of several of the targeted ISIS leaders from west Mosul to Sinjar and on through Syria into Turkey.
News of the escape of the ISIS leaders surfaced a day after the clash in the Kahnasore complex.
In response to Saed Hassan’s statement, the KRG asserted that the Peshmerga “have the “right to enter any area they wish at any time and have no need to justify their operations to anyone.”
This highhanded response by the KRG representative is altogether characteristic of Barzani’s temperament and personal style, and it is almost certain that he wrote it. Not taking responsibility for compromising the west Mosul operation by the CF and Iraqi special forces units is also typical of the man. President of the KRG since 2005, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party since 1979, the Kurdish strongman is accustomed to giving orders and getting his way, heedless of the impact his actions will have on coalition partners. His objective is to create a Kurdish nation and ultimately install himself as its head of state with dictatorial powers, just like his mentor and ally, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. His term of office expired two years ago but he has refused to step down, remaining adamant that he is the only man who can lead the KRG toward statehood. Many Kurds support him in this quest, but he also has many opponents. These include other Kurds (as the recent fighting in Sinjar demonstrated), numerous coalition actors, and even members of his own family. See:
The truth is, Barzani possesses a Ba’ath-style gift for making enemies, and their numbers are increasing even as he makes deals for his own preservation. Those in the region with bad blood toward him and his followers include — but are by no means limited to — other Kurdish factions, Sunni and Shia Arabs, Turkmen, Shabaks, Assyrian Christians, Yezidis, and the governments of Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria.
Notably absent from this list are Israel and the Israelis. Barzani enjoys what appears on the surface to be excellent relations with Israel. It is a longstanding relationship, as noted in a May 2016 article in the Jerusalem Post:
Israel, which has had a close clandestine relationship with Kurdish groups that dates to the 1960s, has generally been supportive of Kurdish rights. In January, [Israeli] Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked expressed support for Kurdish independence. . . . In a 2014 speech to the Institute for National Security Studies Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Kurdistan was “worthy of statehood.” All of these developments in the last years point to an enduring bond between two Middle Eastern peoples that is growing and can be cultivated.
Having Israel as a friend has proved immensely beneficial to Barzani. In return the KRG has provided Israel with the strategic depth it needs in the region to counter Iran’s ballistic missile threat. But, unfortunately for Israel, the KRG has proved to be an unreliable partner, with Barzani reportedly brokering a deal with Iran that had him revealing many details of the Kurdish-Israeli connection.
Of course, the Israelis are aware of Barzani’s dealings with Iran but have to date taken no retaliatory action against him. They will continue to give a pass to Barzani, especially when it come to Israel’s security concerns with Iran, unless and until they can find a more reliable partner in the region. It’s not certain they ever will. Alternatives do exist, but Israel has not explored them. The Israelis have good strategic reasons to maintain their relationship with the KRG and are therefore probably willing to put up with Barzani’s double dealings, at least for now — which is to say, for as long Israeli and Kurdish interests coincide.
Other regional actors, however, are bent on bringing down Barzani and the KRG, as he has envisioned it, will not hesitate to do so if and when the opportunity presents itself.
Barzani has no one to blame but himself for this state of affairs. This is his flaw, this propensity for making enemies, and it may well prove fatal to his and his peoples’ aspirations for Kurdish statehood. Of course he does not see this flaw in himself or, if he does, he is indifferent to it. He cares only about the Kurds who support him and the coalition partners who fund him, and he will do anything he can to advance their interests even if it means riding roughshod over opposition Kurds and, especially, non-Kurds unlucky enough to come under his authority.
Foremost among the latter are the minority peoples of the Assyria Nineveh Plain (ANP): Assyrians, Yezidis, Shabaks and Turkmen. In 2014 Kurdish forces charged with defending the plain abandoned it without a fight to advancing ISIS forces, which drove the occupants from the villages they had lived in for countless generations. They fled to refugee camps beyond the reach of ISIS forces, leaving Daesh in control of the region. Subsequently, Kurdish forces returned to the ANP, supposedly for the purpose of ejecting ISIS (which they did), but also to seize the territory and incorporate it into the KRG. The KRG’s designs on the region became apparent as soon as ISIS withdrew. Kurdish forces, guided by the Kurdish intelligence apparatus (which takes its marching orders from Barzani and his sons), have stayed and blocked all efforts by the former inhabitants to return to their villages.
According to Hunain Qaddo, secretary general of the Democratic Shabak Assembly, the KDP is working hard to take over the regions of the Nineveh plain in any way — including trying to change the identity of the indigenous minorities — due to the economic importance of Nineveh province and its oil reserves, in addition to the fertile agricultural lands of the Shabaks. The KDP also wants to establish a buffer zone between Arabs and Kurds to set the stage for declaring the Kurdish state.
Similarly, Robert Nicholson of the Philos Project wrote that, “For months we’ve been receiving numerous reports from Assyrian Christians and Yazidis that Kurdish forces are using the fog of war to seize land that rightfully belongs to victims of genocide. . . . Each week those reports are increasing. The Nineveh Plain has never been a Kurdish territory. It belongs to the Christians (Assyrians) and Yazidis who have been living there for thousands of years.
In addition to expropriating the land from the peoples of the ANP, it has been reported that the Kurds are destroying the villages, looting and leveling them as a way of discouraging the return of their dispossessed inhabitants.
Like the Romans in Gaul, “they make a wilderness and call it peace.” They also call it their own.
And they have no intention of leaving. In a statement to Fox News, a Kurdish official explained that “What happens to those areas has yet to be decided. . . . The Peshmerga will not withdraw from areas we consider to be Kurdistani areas.”
The Kurds are also stealing oil from the Iraqi government, pumping it from oil fields in northern Iraq under their control and selling it at discount to the Turks, who in turn (and under Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s [RTE] direction), sell it on the international market.
The Turks have used their oil income to finance Daesh operations in Syria and Iraq. Thus the Barzani clan, along with his senior leadership, are indirectly providing ISIS with the economic wherewithal to wage war with, among others … the Kurds themselves.
There is a method to their seeming madness: they want to prolong the war with ISIS because a longer war means more chaos and destruction in the region, which will weaken Turkey and Iraq and possibly cause the two nations to break apart. The Kurds will then move to create a sovereign state.
In the meantime, Barzani and his top cronies are skimming oil profits, and have grown fabulously wealthy while most Kurds live in abject poverty, or something close to it.
Freznd Sherko, a political analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, summed up the situation in a recent article in the Georgetown Security Studies Review:
The continuation of a de facto autocracy in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq has led to an extension of oligarchic authority and created a neglected nation, poor society, locked economy, and an irresponsible and corrupt government. The persistence of this situation would direct Kurdistan politically into a one-party dominant violent system, administratively into a corrupt financial system, economically into a divided society between multi-billionaires and deprived classes, and security-wise into an unconstitutional cartel of armed groups and small-secure islands. Socially, it would create undeveloped, conservative, and religious individuals; in terms of general living conditions, it would link income sources with loyalty to the dominant political family and party; and in terms of foreign relations, it would change the regional influence of Kurdistan into a critical, sanctified hegemony which secures the existence of and advantages for autocratic party leaders for a moderate to long period of time.
Barzani knows that Kurdish statehood will not be achieved without considerable bloodshed; that many battles will be fought and many Kurdish men and women will die in the process. But he is fully willing to sacrifice countless Kurdish lives for the sake of winning personal glory as the man who created the nation of Kurdistan. He has long dreamed of ruling this nation and then passing it on to his sons, who can also be counted on to squeeze it dry of its wealth for their own personal gain.
Barzani has huge ambitions and lofty aspirations, and he is determined to achieve them. But he has a problem, namely that there are non-Kurds in the region who harbor the same or similar ambitions and aspirations, and who have more of a historical claim to the land than and who are more aligned with Western values than the Kurds. Barzani must recognize their claims and ensure that they are met. If he doesn’t, his dream of a sovereign nation of Kurdistan will either remain unfulfilled or, if and when it does come into existence, it will not exist for long.
LTC Sargis Sangari is the founder and CEO of NEC-SC. Steven Weingartner is NEC-SC’s Senior Editor.