The war against the Islamic State (IS) is continuing full force in Iraq and Syria. And Kurds from both countries remain the most effective partners in the US-led coalition’s effort to eradicate the jihadists. But traditional rivalries between the main Iraqi Kurdish factions and tensions between Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish forces on the ground are hindering this effort. Turkey’s reluctance to open the Incirlik air base to combat missions against IS is another obstacle.
Al-Monitor spoke with Masrour Barzani, who heads the intelligence services of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), about the challenges facing the anti-IS coalition. Barzani, whose official title is chancellor of the Kurdistan Region Security Council, is the eldest son of Massoud Barzani, the KRG president and leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). Western diplomats say he is very much like his father — not fond of ostentation, firm in his convictions and reserved. The interview took place in the heavily guarded presidential compound that lies north of the KRG capital, Erbil.
The highlights of the interview follow:
Al-Monitor: How is the war against IS going?
Barzani: We have had ups and downs. [IS] was stopped from advancing and was defeated on several fronts. We liberated a vast area, mostly to the west of the Tigris River, including Rabiya and Zumar. Territories to the south of Erbil near Makhmour and Qwer and to the west and the southwest of Kirkuk between Erbil and Kirkuk were also liberated. We also took Jalawla, Saadiya and Khanaquin. So altogether about 20,000 square kilometers [7,722 square miles]. Unfortunately, we have lost about 1,280 peshmerga fighters since last August [when IS targeted Erbil]. About 7,000 peshmerga fighters have been wounded. But [IS] also suffered a lot with about 11,000 killed both on the ground by our forces and by coalition airstrikes. For a while we felt that [IS] was in decline. But the fall of Ramadi [in Iraq] and of Palmyra/Tedmur in Syria gave [IS] a huge boost both logistically and in terms of morale. This sent a clear message to the people in the areas under its control that “we are capable of reorganizing ourselves and launching attacks.” They are not all that easy to defeat.
Al-Monitor: What more needs to be done?
Barzani: I have no doubt that [IS] will be defeated. It’s a matter of time. Frankly no one other than the Kurds is doing enough.
Al-Monitor: But the coalition’s support has proved vital.
Barzani: Sure, everybody is contributing in one way or the other, but they are not acting quickly enough. We are still awaiting the training of new [anti-IS] forces by the coalition for Iraq and Syria. [IS] will use this time to recruit more people and more innocent lives will be lost.
So the question remains how determined is the international community to defeat [IS] as soon as possible.
Al-Monitor: Turkey is often singled out as not being committed enough to the coalition, even though it is a coalition member. The fact that it is not allowing coalition aircraft to use the Incirlik air base is cited as an example. We know that your father in particular was very disappointed by Turkey’s failure to intervene when IS came within striking distance of Erbil last summer.
Barzani: It is not my job to analyze the actions of governments and to tell the Turks what to do. But the facts are clear in terms of how every individual country is dealing with this particular issue. We have higher expectations from Turkey.
They should be doing a lot more than they are doing now. They are members of NATO, so they have to work out a system with the rest of the coalition members of how Turkey can best contribute. We are concerned by the deteriorating situation in Syria but also by the deterioration in the Kurdish peace process in Turkey. What we would love to see happen is for [IS] to be defeated and for the peace process to be expedited so that we can once and for all solve this problem of the Turks and Kurds inside Turkey.
Al-Monitor: But recent statements by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Turkish government suggest that their position is hardening. Erdogan has said he will not tolerate the establishment of a Kurdish state on Turkey’s borders. And pro-government newspapers have described the YPG [People's Protection Units] as being a greater threat than even IS.
Barzani: I think that the Turks should be more concerned about having [IS] on the borders of Turkey. Indeed, Turkish reaction to this should be one of relief that Kurds, as friends of the Turks, are controlling the border rather than [IS], which is the enemy of the entire world.
Now when I say Kurds, I don't particularly mean the YPG. I am talking about many other Kurdish forces, other political parties [such as the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Syria (KDP-S)] that are moderate. Even if Turkey has concerns about a particular group [YPG] I think they should be helping to build up a coalition of all moderate forces. And the Americans are trying to encourage this [cooperation between the YPG and the KDP-S] because it’s the only way forward. We think all the parties should have a fair opportunity to participate and to work in [Syrian Kurdistan]. In any event, fighting IS doesn’t meant that there would immediately be an independent Kurdistan.
Al-Monitor: Don’t you want independence for Iraqi Kurdistan?
Barzani: I don’t think Iraq is a feasible project. It's time for the world to realize that the failed system needs to be reviewed. Repeating the same mistake and believing it will give you a different result is insanity. This is exactly true for Iraq. How many times have we tried to support a united, strong central government in Baghdad? It didn’t work. Kurdistan is controlled by the Kurds, the Sunni areas are controlled by [IS] and the Shiite areas are controlled by Shiite forces and the Popular Mobilization Units. Prime Minister [Haider al-] Abadi has been making a big effort to fix things. But the Iraqi government must accept this reality and look for other solutions. We are not pushing for forced separation. We are talking about an amicable divorce.
Al-Monitor: And what do you do about Kirkuk?
Barzani: If the Baghdad government is so confident that Kirkuk is part of Iraq, why have they still not implemented Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution? It explicitly states that a referendum needs to be held on the status of Kirkuk. But the referendum is always postponed. Why?
Al-Monitor: You say IS controls the Arab Sunni areas along the KRG’s borders. How do you get IS to accept your independence?
Barzani: [IS] is not a part of any dialogue. [IS] must be defeated.
Al-Monitor: Are you saying you need to defeat [IS] before you declare independence?
Barzani: No, we are not saying that because we don’t know for how long [IS] is going to be around. Our priority is to fight [IS], but finishing [IS] doesn’t mean that terrorism will end. There will be many other forms.
Al-Monitor: Would you be more effective fighting them if you were independent?
Al-Monitor: Could you explain?
Barzani: We would be able to make our own agreements to purchase our own weapons in quantity, quality and on time. Whereas now unfortunately we are still experiencing difficulties getting the weapons that we need and getting them in the quantity and at the time that we need them.
Al-Monitor: Would a US base to protect you help?
Barzani: Whenever Kurdistan becomes independent I can give you an answer.
Al-Monitor: Could you imagine a scenario where the Kurdish areas of Syria become part of an independent Kurdistan of which the capital would be Erbil?
Barzani: I don’t know. I don’t want to engage in speculation. Our intention in Iraqi Kurdistan is to focus on Iraqi Kurdistan, which has a legitimate, recognized administration and territories. And we wish to have friendly relations based on mutual respect with all of our neighbors.
Al-Monitor: Turkey has offered to mediate between the KDP and the YPG/PKK [Kurdistan Workers Party] over Sinjar. The tensions between your forces and the YPG-PKK that played a significant part in the liberation of Sinjar are well known. You want the YPG to leave Sinjar and they are resisting?
Barzani: The Turks wanted to play a role and it came a little late because when the Kurds came under attack from [IS] the expectation was that Turkey would play a much bigger role by actively engaging and providing the support that the Kurds needed. Sinjar is a completely different story. Sinjar is deep inside our territories. The problem there [the IS occupation] was solved with the help of coalition airstrikes but primarily by the peshmerga forces. Sinjar is a Kurdish territory inside Iraq and the PYD [the YPG’s political arm] is a guest exactly in the same way that our peshmerga forces were when they went to support them in Kobani, but then returned. It is the expectation of the people of Iraqi Kurdistan that foreign fighters eventually leave and go back to where they came from.
Al-Monitor: Isn’t the greatest expectation among Kurds everywhere that you rise above your differences and unite? I have heard many say that an army uniting all the different Kurdish groups should be formed?
Barzani: We are uniting already against [IS]. There are Kurds from Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. As for a united Kurdish army of all these different groups, you have to understand the reality on the ground. It’s probably premature to think that such a thing would happen, especially given Iraqi Kurdistan’s own unique situation. It would be best for Kurds from other parts to help the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
Al-Monitor: How would that translate in Sinjar?
Barzani: Like I said, the PKK has no role to play. They should pull out and they must because the people of Sinjar will determine their own future and this is Iraqi Kurdistan. Would the PKK be happy if a Kurdish political party inside Iraq meddled in the affairs of Diyarbakir or Mardin? But there are parties inside the Kurdish community within Turkey that definitely should be allowed to play a role. We believe in a multiparty system. PYD-PKK elements must pull out when the situation gets back to normal.
Al-Monitor: What of the PKK presence in the Qandil Mountains?
Barzani: This is Iraqi territory and they must leave. And this is one of the reasons why we are so eager to see the Kurdish peace process inside Turkey succeed. We hope this problem will be resolved peacefully.
Al-Monitor: How concerned are you about growing Iranian influence and the Popular Mobilization Units?
Barzani: We respect the achievements of the Popular Mobilization Units but their status needs to be clarified. They need to come under legal supervision and be fully answerable to the Iraqi authorities, and rather than compete they ought to complement each other. In any case, under the Iraqi Constitution our territory is protected and controlled by our own forces so there is no need for others to come in. And as I said, we would like to have friendly relations with all of our neighbors including Iran, and that our relationship is based on mutual respect.
They cannot look down on us as subordinate or inferior.
Al-Monitor: Do they?
Barzani: In some areas they do, but definitely not in Kurdistan. Kurdistan is different.
Al-Monitor: But Iran has intervened in the internal matters of Iraqi Kurdistan before, as it did in the 1990s when it helped the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan recapture Sulaimaniyah from the KDP.
Barzani: There are definitely differences between parties. There are dependencies on third parties. Our goal and the goal of our president was to create a prosperous, democratic Kurdistan region that would respect its neighbors. We understand there are pressures on Kurdistan from its neighbors, but in the end it's up to the Kurds to realize that unity is really the guarantee to their success.
Al-Monitor: The president’s term is due to expire in August and there are differences between the KDP and the opposition over whether his term ought to be extended for a third time. Moreover, the opposition insists that the powers of the president [Massoud Barzani] be curbed. This is surely a test of your unity.
Barzani: I think the president has become a symbol of the Kurdish national movement, whether some accept it or not. Under normal circumstance we would have had elections on Aug. 20 and the president has asked the parliament and the electoral commission to prepare for elections. It’s now up to the commission to arrange for elections to be held on time, and if not to avert a legal vacuum. Before this issue arose all the political parties agreed that all matters pertaining to the national interest must be solved through consensus. If these parties understand the threat posed by [IS] and the economic problems we are having because of revenue-sharing with Baghdad, they would realize that the last thing Kurdistan needs is another crisis. Consensus is the best way forward.
When the KDP had the majority of seats and the power to make decisions, they always encouraged a consensus and national unity. Sadly, when the KDP’s rivals feel there is a single opportunity to bring down the KDP, they forget the national interest and they immediately jump on what is in it for them as a political gain. It’s a cheap game.