The Iraqi Kurdish leader’s big mistake was to bank on US and Israeli support for his ill-judged independence bid
By Abdel Bari Atwan
Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, did not step down voluntarily. He was forced to resign by a democratically-elected parliament once he realised he could no longer remain in office after the grave misdeeds and mistakes he committed at his people’s expense, due to his ill-considered decisions and stubborn stances that put personal advantage above the public good and his misreading of political realities.
Iraqi Kurdish opposition to Barzani had been growing and gaining strength, both within his Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and other Kurdish political forces. His insistence on holding the independence referendum on 25 September, turning a deaf ear to all advice and appeals even from his closest friends to postpone the vote, was the fatal blow that put an end to his rule and perhaps his political career too.
There is one crucial point that the KDP leader failed to appreciate, and which escaped his mind and his political calculations: namely, that Iraq has changed. It is no longer the feeble and anarchic state that could do nothing in the face of blatant violations of its constitution and laws, and whose forces melted away when faced with the advance of Kurdish peshmerga troops in Kirkuk and Sinjar – just as they had earlier collapsed when confronted by Daesh (Islamic State) in much of northern and central Iraq. Today’s Iraq is stronger. It has formidable military forces which can no longer be dismissed, and it belongs to a new regional alliance that is asserting itself across the region – first in Syria, now in northern Iraq.
After the referendum, cooperation or coordination with the federal government in Baghdad cased to be an option for Barzani. It is no exaggeration to say that his decision to proceed with the referendum in the way he did provided Baghdad, as well as the neighbouring governments in Tehran and Ankara, with an invaluable gift. It was held at the wrong time and for the wrong reasons, and ended up backfiring badly on Barzani, and on him alone.
Barzani may perhaps have learned some lessons from his disastrous decision, which may end up destroying his personal 40-year political legacy and that of his dynasty.The most important of those lessons is the folly of relying on the backing of the US and the West and expecting them to intervene to rescue him. He failed to appreciate that for the Americans, Arab and Kurdish ‘allies’ alike are mere clients, to be used and then discarded once they have outlived their usefulness.
Barzani rendered enormous services to the US, especially in colluding against the government in Baghdad and effecting regime-change after providing cover for the US invasion and occupation which caused the deaths of hundreds and thousands of Iraqis, in addition to those who perished earlier as a result of the embargo. But the US lost no time in abandoning Barzani once he got into trouble, and was quick to welcome his resignation and begin searching for a replacement.
Barzani’s big mistake was to think that Israeli and American support would take him further than it did his late father, the late Mulla Musatafa Barzani, who was similarly sponsored and then abandoned in the 1970s. He believed that facilitating, participating and providing cover for the US invasion of Iraq would grant him permanent immunity and an open-ended guarantee of American support and protection for his family and regime. Yet he finds himself being ignominiously abandoned in a way he never imagined.
He was wrong to accuse the Kurdish forces loyal to the Suleimaniya-based Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of ‘treason’ for refusing to fight against Iraqi government forces in Kirkuk. They proved to be more patriotic, rational and wise than his own followers, who were ordered into battle against the forces of a federal government fought are Iraqi forces representing a federal government whose constitution and laws he himself helped to draft, and which he solemnly swore to uphold.
Barzani wondered in his resignation speech why the US failed to support his forces by intervening to prevent Iraqi troops from advancing on Kirkuk. He has a right to ask this question, and to be angry. But we have a right to ask why he did not direct this same question at his Israeli allies, who disappeared completely from the scene and abandoned him at his moment of greatest need, after having loudly supported his independence referendum and celebrated its outcome.
Barzani must not compound his mistakes by resorting to escalation. His boast that he remains a member of the peshmerga and his talk of taking his forces back into the mountains to resume armed struggle is ominous. It reaffirms his misreading of the situation in Iraqi Kurdistan and refusal to learns the right lessons or come to terms with the fact that times have changed, as have the political balances in Iraq and neighbouring countries. What could be done 40 years ago is no longer viable now.
But this is not the time for Barzani’s Iraqi opponents to raise old grievances or settle scores. There is far more that unites Iraq’s Arabs and Kurds –faith, cultural heritage, a common history and centuries of neighbourly relations – than divides them. If anything, it was colonial divide-and-rule policies which sought to stoke sectarian and ethnic divisions which set them apart. This does not mean the Kurds were not subjected to horrendous injustices, which cost them heavily in lives and blood and against which they mounted courageous and stoic resistance.
The corrupt federal government has committed many injustices against them, and must rectify these and reform itself too.
The Kurds should meanwhile appreciate that Israel will never fight on their behalf. It is not their friend and does not wish them well – it merely seeks to exploit them as tools against their Arab, Turkish and Iranian compatriot. The US is no different. It is time for a new leaf to be turned in relations between the Kurds and the countries in which they live, eschewing ethnic strife and building truly democratic structures to uphold the rights and dignity of all and bring an end to direct or indirect neo-colonial tutelage.