Barzani gambled it all and Lost– Kurdistan Pres. ending Career

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani has written a letter to the parliament of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government announcing that he will not run for president again and will go out of office on November 1 as his much-extended term of office ends.

Barzani had taken heart from the collapse of the Iraqi military in 2014, when it ran away from the ISIL advance in Mosul. For three years his Kurdistan Regional Government, formed from three provinces of Iraq, did not even have a border with territory controlled by Baghdad. Kurdistan’s Peshmerga paramilitary occupied the oil-rich province of Kirkuk, even though its status was supposed to be decided by referendum according to the Iraqi constitution. His argument that he therefore kept Kirkuk and its petroleum riches out of the hands of ISIL has some merit. Abadi wanted it back now that the crisis was passing. Barzani thought Baghdad paper tiger, and so in September he pushed through a referendum on Kurdistan independence, against the advice of all his senior advisers and of the United States. If asked, Iraqi Kurds will say they want independence, and that is how they voted.

It turns out that President Barack Obama’s plan to rebuild the Iraqi army was unexpectedly wildly successful. Not only did the army defeat ISIL in city after city, taking Mosul and Hawija, but it gained the experience, strategic acumen and American weaponry to pose a serious threat to the Kurdistan Peshmerga, who had apparently gotten soft in the past half decade. It is also true that the Iraqi Army was supported by Shiite militias, some of them trained by Iran.

Abadi pressed the issue by demanding the return of Kurdistan to Baghdad’s control, and then he sent in troops to make that happen. Kirkuk was largely guarded by the Peshmerga from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, based in Sulaymaniya, which is under the control of the Talabani family, rivals of the Barzanis. The PUK and its military declined for the most part to fight the Iraqi army, and so the latter was able to wrest Kirkuk from Iraq over the course of a couple of days. The allegation that this move against Kurdistan was orchestrated by Iran seems to me silly. Baghdad wanted Kirkuk back. Iran gave some help to the Shiite militias, but this campaign was Abadi’s baby.

People in Kurdistan blamed Barzani for upsetting the apple cart with his referendum. Kurdistan has de facto autonomy, and few could understand why Barzani took the risk of destabilizing it by demanding de jure independence. The province is landlocked and depends on Turkey for the pipeline through which it exports oil. It is vulnerable to Iraqi government attack.

You have to wonder if Barzani thought Trump would support him. If so, he was badly disappointed. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sided with Baghdad on the Kirkuk issue.

Since it is unclear when new presidential elections can be held, Barzani does not have an obvious successor. He appears to be urging that his presidential powers be distributed among the three branches of government– the judiciary, the legislature, and the now leaderless bureaucracy.

With the rise of a new generation of the Talabanis, his tradition rivals and partners, Barzani has serious and effective critics. And he was revealed not to control the Peshmerga. Abadi so humiliated him that he had to step down.

Massoud Barzani’s father, Mustafa Barzani, spent decades working for Kurdish independence in Iraq and Iran. Massoud Barzani was born in 1946 in the Republic of Mahabad, the short-lived independent Kurdish state carved out of northern Iran at the end of WW II with the support of the Soviet Union. The Truman administration backed the demands of Iran that the Soviets withdraw from northern Iran, which they had occupied during the war with Anglo-American approval (Iran was used by the allies to resupply the Soviet Union since it had good rail links with the latter). So the Mahabad Republic evaporated and Iran’s Kurds went back to being under Iranian rule. The Barzanis returned to Iraqi Kurdistan, heading the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which Massoud Barzani took over in 1979.

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Related video added by Juan Cole:

WION TV: “Iraqi Kurdistan leader Barzani will hand over presidential powers on November 1”

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13 Responses

  1. As one who spent a lot of time reading old volumes of scholarly punditry on the last century in the region, there sure was a lot of energy wasted on worrying about the disaster that could occur when the ultimate fate of Kirkuk, with its mixed population and role as a crossroads, was decided.

    One of the two main parties declined the fight, and the matter was settled in a few days without great bloodshed or regional warfare (entailing even greater bloodshed).

    For now. As I wrote way back in the day, “changes in social and political behavior have a way of snapping back into an older pattern after 5 or 20 years.” And with the triple threat to stability of climate change, national economies at all levels that are based on continued pollution and inequality, and the too many governments that operate only for the benefit of a small elite, compared to the millions and billions who either feel powerless, or don’t even know how powerless they are, I’m not betting against Kirkuk again changing hands, and/or the outbreak of serious regional warfare, in the next 5 or 20 years.

  2. The hopes for an independent nation of the longest-waiting national group are dashed on the rocks of Realpolitik. After getting close enough to smell the finish line, they watch the finish line being yanked away beyond their sight. Sad.

  3. I wonder how Iraqi’s generally view Kurdish people. Many southern Spanish have no time for Catalans. I had once to make a report of a robbery to the police north of Barcelona and when I took the document to my local police in Andalusia, the officer took one look at it, made a disparaging ‘humph’ sound, and muttered, Catalan, in a more than somewhat dismissive tone. If a group is looked down on by the majority it will encourage solidarity and notions of independence in a way brotherly attitudes wouldn’t.

  4. Barzani may be out of picture shortly, but the question of Kurdistan remains unsettled. There’s no indication that Abadi and the government in Baghdad can offer a political solution acceptable to most Kurds. It’s also highly unlikely they can compel the Kurds militarily to lay down their arms and bury their hopes independence.

  5. Kurds don’t get soft, just wiser. Might be the Barzani clan was counting on bloodshed (PUK blood) to get the big power to force a settlement. Now Al-Abadi has disarmed all and PUK has saved countless lives. Iraqi army did not run away, they were betrayed and massacred to pressure Maliki/ Assad. An Iraqi Kurd fired Al Maliki and Al-Abadi has proven apt in navigating the regions political minefields.

    • The allegation that the Iraqi Army ran away in total in Mosul has always been untrue. Many battalions fought. However, ISIS took over the HQs in the North, and hacked communications. They pretended to be the ISF chain of command and gave all sorts of “fake” irrational orders. They specifically ordered IA battalions on the offensive to cease offensive operations on pull back. The ISF was unprepared for an enemy more technically savvy than they were.

      Plus ISIS targeted the HQs rather than conventional combat maneuver battalions in a large number of simultaneous commando operations that would compare favorably to any major global special forces. The ISF with their pyramid style C2 (command and control) was unable to rapidly adapt, since underlings were reluctant to act without permission from their bosses. This was a massive problem since over a dozen ISF generals killed in rapid succession.

      Khamenei intentionally removed competent nationalist officers from the ISF 2011-2014 to ensure the ISF didn’t threaten Iran. Maliki felt unable to stop Khamenei since Maliki felt that America no longer supported Iraq.

      Now, fortunately, many of the competent ISF officers have returned; except for Kurdish ones. If Kurdish officers could be persuaded to return to the formal ISF; the ISF would quickly become one of the most capable security forces in the middle east.

      • They ran away and left behind billions in US military equipment for ISIL. One of the greatest military fiascoes in history. In part, the Mosul citizenry massed and attacked them. In part, the enlisted men from Hilla knew their officers had screwed them by taking money for ghost deployments and leaving half the force in Hilla and Basra. They were damned if they were going to die for that.

        • “One of the greatest military fiascoes in history.” This is an explanation of why this happened, not a denial that this happened. The ISF didn’t abandon their HQs or refuse the orders of their HQs. They were obeying their HQs (fake signals and orders issued by ISIS), or not disobeying their HQs, since instructions didn’t come from them. ISIS targeted the HQs and senior staff officers in rapid succession; almost simultaneously. Plus ISIS successfully killed over a dozen generals almost simultaneously. The ISF didn’t have a flat organizational structure which allowed initiative at lower levels of the chain of command in 2014 (showing such initiative could be a career ending move). This is a major weakness that many militaries and police forces around the world have relative to the US military.

          One of the main objectives of Foreign Internal Defense (FID or increasing the capacity of foreign security forces) and international advising is to encourage a flatter organizational structure that doesn’t punish lower level initiative; and allows junior officers and NCOs to act first, ask later (within the general guidance previously given by the chain of command).

          It is probable that over 5,000 ISF died in June, 2014, if not a lot more (IMoD and IMoI haven’t published statistics on this). The ISF, and their senior officers, did not voluntarily die.

          Another important point to remember is that the ISF didn’t have operational Corps level HQs in 2014. They were not formed before international forces left. Had Corps level HQs been operational, they could have directly communicated with and assumed command of the brigade and battalions HQs in the North after the Ninevah Operational Command, 2nd Iraqi Army HQs, 3rd Iraqi Army HQs, 4th Iraqi Army HQs, Ninevah Provincial HQs, At Tamin Provincial HQs, Salahadin Provincial HQs were compromised. The ability of ISIS to hack ISF command and control electronic communication also reflected a major technological weakness within the ISF that international training would have rectified.

          I think that the Iraqi Army would have fought and died in large numbers if ordered to do so through the chain of command in June, 2014. They have done so 2004-2013, and since 2015.

          You are correct that many Mosul citizens turned against the ISF in 2014. However, there was no street uprising in June 2014 to my knowledge. Rather Moslawis quietly watched ISIS disrupt and drive out the ISF; without trying to help the ISF.

  6. Barzani has been selling oil through Turkey and splitting the proceeds. He thought Erdogan would back him. But Turkey, the US, Iran, Iraq all signalled opposition. When the PUK folded (after talks with Tehran’s emissary), the game was up. The KDP succession is the next flash point.

  7. Prof Cole, I would be curious to hear documentation about the Mosul street uprising in June, 2014. Many Moslawis now claim it didn’t happen via e-mails and phone calls; perhaps to deny their own accountability and responsibility for the catastrophic ISIS rule of Mosul.

    Perhaps you could present this in a future post. I would love to send this to some Iraqis for feedback.

  8. Of course Mosul had large street protests regarding GoI policies, corruption, governance and freedom 2011-2014; albeit not as large as Tahrir Square. What I am looking for is evidence that there were large June 2014 demonstrations that were overtly pro ISIS. Many Moslawis today deny they were pro ISIS and deny Moslowi culpability in the ISIS oppression of Mosul.

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