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What Happens to Iraqi Kurdistan when Masoud Barzani Dies?

Masoud Barzani
U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo meets with Kurdistan Regional Government Prime Minister-designate Masoud Barzani, in Erbil, Iraq, on January 9, 2019. [State Department Photo/ Public Domain]

Masoud Barzani, Kurdistan Democratic Party leader and former president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, is 76 years old, the same age as his father was when he succumbed to cancer. Barzani has been Iraqi Kurdistan’s godfather for more than three decades.

He may not be for much longer.

Rumors fly across the region that he is sick – something multiple sources have told me. Kurdistan is a land of First World restaurants and third world hospitals and so, even after billions of dollars in foreign investment and even more from oil revenue, he would have to go abroad for treatment – something my sources confirmed. He disappears for days and occasionally weeks at a time to Vienna, reportedly for medical treatment. The Kurdish press is strictly controlled at the best of times, and family affairs are a third rail no one can touch in print. The reality is that No one outside his inner circle knows exactly what the ailment is, though rumors fly.

Barzani Dynasty has Far-Reaching Implications

Barzani’s death will have implications not only for Iraqi Kurdistan and Iraq more broadly but also for the region. While he spouts the language of nationalism and Kurdish pride, his legacy will be different: He has enriched himself and his family at the expense of the people. Salaries go unpaid. Corruption rivals that in Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen. While he cloaks himself in the rhetoric of nationalism, in exchange for money and investment, he has transformed Barzani-controlled lands into a second Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, only with more money laundering.

Still, the United States has increasingly ignored Barzani’s abuses. The State Department and White House logic is simple: Barzani may be corrupt and he may be a dictator, but he stabilizes the region. Barzani uses diplomatic blackmail to play this up. 

Overreliance on the Barzani dynasty does not bring stability. Tolerance for dictatorship is a losing proposition. 

Already, the generational struggle is underway as Barzani’s eldest son (and prime minister) Masrour Barzani works to marginalize Masoud’s nephew (and regional president) Nechirvan Barzani. Nechirvan is hemorrhaging influence and may ultimately end his career under either de facto house arrest or exile. 

While diplomats acknowledge Masrour’s actions against his cousin and Nechirvan’s son Idris, there is less discussion about the potential for fighting amongst Masoud’s five sons: Masrour, Mansour, Muksi, Waysi, and Mulla Mustafa (Babo).

The Next Generation of Barzanis

Deference to their father has long kept disputes among the brothers (and their children) from erupting into the open. When Masoud is gone, after a brief period of mourning, all bets are off. Masrour will close his garrote first around the necks of Nechirvan and Idris. It will be like the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton without any pretense of niceties or luxury.

The next step in Masrour’s efforts to consolidate control will be more destabilizing. Under Masoud’s aegis, the Barzanis have sought to monopolize the business. That may have worked when Erbil and Duhok (and, on the Talabani side of things, Sulaymani) were boomtowns, but a poor business climate has slowly investment and innovation. The pie stopped growing; it may even be shrinking.

The Barzani’s power, both as a family and as individuals, depends upon both image and patronage. 

Consider image: Leading Kurdish figures drive around in fancy convoys that sometimes have enough SUVs to dwarf a U.S. presidential motorcade by a factor of three or four. The number of cars is proportional to placement in the political pecking order. 

Diplomatic deference also bolsters image. Every photo-op with diplomats or foreign governments gives bolster to the individual Barzani’s power relative to his cousins’ and brothers’. What might be boilerplate diplomatic nicety in Washington, Paris, or Berlin, can do more harm than good when the recipients of praise are too unaware to differentiate between protocol and sincerity. 

Patronage also matters. Business, bank balances, and Bugattis also reflect power. As the pie shrinks, the Barzanis will move in on low-hanging fruit to ensure they can maintain their own standards of living and fund extensive entourages. 

Power Struggle is Inevitable

Just as Masoud decades ago ensured that he would sit alone at the top of the Barzani pyramid, so too will Masrour turn upon his brothers. If status was politics alone, this might not be a problem. However, Masrour is the eldest and Kurdistan is a de facto monarchy where the eldest son is the heir apparent. But declining resources means Masrour may encroach on the interests of his brothers. 

Muksi will likely stand aside; he has always been more of an artsy type, less interested in politics or money. He poses no threat to his siblings. The other brothers each have business interests upon which Masrour may act. In the short term, Masrour can count on Waysi, his proxy in the security forces and perhaps the most brutal of the Barzani children, as they ensure the other brothers are constrained or pushed aside. Ultimately, however, Masrour and Waysi will spar over some holdings. Masrour needs to demonstrate to the public if not Waysi himself, that he is dominant to his security-focused brother. Masrour mentored Waysi in his own image. He understands, therefore, how Machiavellian Waysi can be. 

What Western diplomats must expect is that, like a mafia or gang war, some of the fights between the brothers will be bloody. The targets may not be the brothers themselves, but rather members of their entourage or their business interests. Explosions. Arson. Drive-by shootings. Disappearances. Iran and Turkey will gleefully throw gasoline on the fire. 

Over the last 18 months, the family of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan has experienced something similar as brothers and cousins have maneuvered to seek dominance, and Iran and Turkey picked their proxies. The difference is that there are more Barzani brothers over which to fight.

Transitions can be messy in democracies; they can be even more challenging in dictatorships. It is not too late for the United States to support truer democracy in Iraqi Kurdistan. The stability of dictatorships is an illusion.

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).

Written By

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).