Masoud Barzani stepped down as president of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) on 29 October 2017, ending his 12-year hold on power after a disastrous push for Kurdish independence. The most famous living Kurdish leader outside of jail, he has come to embody the Kurdish struggle for their own state and the malfeasance and incompetence that has dogged Kurdish self-rule in Iraq.
Barzani was always destined to lead Kurdistan. A member of the influential Barzani clan, which rose to power in the 1800s in Kurdish society’s feudal system, and the son of the legendary Kurdish leader Mullah Mustafa Barzani, the groundwork was laid for Masoud himself to lead one day.
Yet leading Kurdistan was not necessarily limited to the Kurdistan Region that lies in northern Iraq. His origins are a clear sign of that: he was born in Mahabad, in present-day Iran, where his father headed the military forces of the short-lived Kurdish Republic of Mahabad, a satellite state of the Soviet Union. Barzani was born there on 16 August 1946, which is also the day the KDP, the Barzani’s party, was founded. It is unclear whether Mustafa arranged to have the dates coincide.
Mustafa inspired Kurds throughout Kurdistan. He was forced to leave Mahabad after the KDP collapsed less than a year after its foundation. He found refuge in the Soviet Union, although without his wife and children, who returned to Iraq. It would be 12 years before he was able to follow them in 1958, after the Iraqi monarchy was overthrown and replaced by a republic. The suppression of the Kurds continued, however, and Mustafa began an uprising against the regime in Baghdad in 1961.
This uprising lasted until 1975, when Mustafa was defeated by the Iraqi army. At the time, young Masoud was a fighter in the Kurdish Peshmerga forces, which he joined at age 16, putting an end to his education. Mustafa resigned as head of the KDP, to be replaced by Masoud at age 33. Mustafa died in exile in the United States (US) in 1979.
Mustafa’s defeat was a turning point for the Kurds. Although they may not all have been KDP supporters, Mustafa’s life-long resistance and armed struggle against several oppressive regimes had been a great inspiration to them. His defeat was likewise a great shock; it created a void in the Kurdish leadership. Masoud was not yet an established leader, and Kurds, especially in Turkey, began to question the strategies of the Barzani clan and the feudal system from which the clan had emerged.
The leadership of the Barzani clan was also challenged inside Iraq by another clan, the Talabanis, which was led by Jalal Talabani. His party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), gained support, and the rivalry between the KDP and the PUK soon turned violent, with conspiracies and reciprocal murders.
Internal developments in Iraq eventually helped to heal the rift, notably the First Gulf War (1991), which brought the Kurds what they had wanted for decades and what Mustafa Barzani had fought for so relentlessly: de facto autonomy. Presidential elections were held in 1992. The results of the race between Jalal Talabani and Masoud Barzani were so close that the two leaders decided to form a joint presidential council. The political friendship did not last long, however, and war broke out in 1994 between the rivals and lasted until 1998.
Barzani instigated one of the war’s more infamous moments when he invited Saddam Hussein’s troops to drive the PUK from Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. This caused tensions between the KDP and the US, which had established a no-fly zone over the region.
Ever since, Iraqi Kurdistan has been divided between a PUK-controlled area in the south, around Sulaymaniyah, and a KDP-controlled northern region around Erbil. Both the PUK and the KDP have their own armed forces, the Peshmerga, although the recent fight against Islamic State (IS) has convinced the Defence Ministry to try to unite the two Peshmerga forces under one command.
After the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, the new Iraqi constitution of 2005 officially made Iraqi Kurdistan autonomous. Presidential elections were held again and this time Barzani won, at the age of 59. His election was a sort of deal between the PUK (whose leader Talabani was appointed president of Iraq in 2005) and the KDP, which had decided to join forces again in 2002. Barzani was elected to a second term of four years in 2009, with 70 per cent of the vote.
Under Barzani’s leadership, Kurdistan has been politically stable, especially when compared to the troubled and violent situation in the rest of Iraq. The region has also prospered economically, not least because Barzani found an ally in Iraq’s northern neighbour, Turkey. Barzani has become personal friends with the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The strategic alliance between Turkey and Kurdistan has been politically and economically important for Barzani. Since the 1980s, his position has been challenged by Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The rivalry is also ideological: the PKK has Marxist roots and fights not only the Turkish state system but also the feudal structures in Kurdish society, of which Barzani’s position is an outstanding example. Yet while Barzani has stepped down, it is unclear whether his presidency will actually end this year.
In 2013, the PUK and KDP extended his term for two years and again in 2015, bypassing Iraq’s constitution. The threat posed by ISIS was given as a reason not to upset the political status quo. However, critics say this is just another example of the lack of democracy under the PUK-KDP alliance and the family dynasties that rule the region.
While the battle against ISIS captivated international attention, Barzani and his Peshmerga won plaudits from the West, even as tensions brewed in the KRG. When Peshmerga troops stepped in to defend Erbil from ISIS in 2014, after Iraqi troops fled, they laid the borders for a new Kurdish state, extending the Kurdish territory into areas like oil-rich Kirkuk that they had long coveted. Free from Baghdad, the Kurdish leaders were able to introduce real self-rule, even exporting their own oil and negotiating military aid from abroad. Through this zenith of Kurdish autonomy, Barzani was feted globally, even as his mismanagement at home became more evident.
In 2016, Barzani announced that once the Kurds had their own state he would step down. Riding high after the defeat of IS in Iraq’s cities, he made his move in 2017. Calling a referendum that he hoped would pave the way for an independent state, he ramped up pro-Kurdish rhetoric at home, incurring the wrath of nervous neighbours as well as long-term allies. While he went ahead with the vote and won a landslide victory at the polls, retribution soon followed. His ambition on behalf of the Kurdish people has ultimately led to his downfall, with the Kurdish project in its worst position for years.
In his resignation speech, he made parting criticisms of both the US and his Kurdish opponents whom he blamed for the loss of the strategic city of Kirkuk to Iraq in October 2017. However, history will surely lay the responsibility for this upheaval of Kurdish fortunes at Barzani’s feet.
In a gamble that backfired dramatically, the vote for Kurdish independence, although wildly popular in areas run by Barzani’s KDP and most ethnically Kurdish territories, has put the KRG back to 2011. With their territory and international standing unequivocally shrunk, the Kurds now face an uphill battle in their quest for their own state.
Despite this, supporters of the 71-year-old remain defiant. As parliament debated his decision to stand down, armed Barzani loyalists forced their way into the building to protest against his treatment.
Now, the US and Turkey seem to be pushing for Barzani’s nephew Nechirvan Barzani, to take over. Barzani’s gamble for independence may have been unsuccessful, but with the Kurdish leadership set to stay in the family, the Barzani name will be centre stage in Kurdish politics for years to come.