Defying warnings from Baghdad, the United States and regional heavyweights Turkey and Iran, the Iraqi Kurds held a referendum on independence on Sept. 25, 2017, that was approved by an overwhelming majority of the Kurdish people. But what was slated to be a grand leap toward realizing the Kurds’ long cherished dreams of statehood rapidly descended into a debacle as Iraqi troops moved against Kurdish peshmerga fighters in territories claimed by both sides, including the oil-rich province of Kirkuk. With oil fields in Kirkuk under central government control, revenue from crude sales has been halved.
In a bid to bolster his nationalist credentials ahead of parliamentary elections in May, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi signed off on shutting Iraqi Kurdish airspace to international flights and continues to withhold the Iraqi Kurds’ share of the national budget. Many blame Massoud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) who stepped down as president soon after the referendum, and his eldest son, Masrour Barzani, the powerful chancellor of the Kurdistan Region Security Council, because they were the main drivers of the referendum. But would the Iraqi army have regained full control over Kirkuk without the collusion of the KDP’s age-old archrival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)? What if the United States had not sided so openly with Baghdad? Al-Monitor put these questions to Masrour Barzani, who is currently in Washington for meetings with senior Donald Trump administration officials, including national security adviser H.R. McMaster. Barzani was typically cautious in his responses, but the recurring theme was that the Kurds had been unfairly punished for exercising their democratic right to vote on their future.
The following is a transcript of the interview, his first with the Western media since the referendum, with slight edits for length and clarity.
Al-Monitor: Are your dreams of an independent Kurdistan over?
Barzani: Well, as a nation I don’t think that dream will ever die out. We just have to be realistic about what is possible. We believed it was important for the world and the Iraqi government also should know what the desires of the Kurdish people are. This is why we did the referendum the way we did. We had some concerns about the future of our people. We wanted to make sure there would be no confrontation, that we would have peaceful and stable relations with Baghdad in whatever structure that we could agree on and based on mutual interests. Unfortunately, I believe the intentions of our people were deliberately misinterpreted because expressing a desire doesn’t mean that it should necessarily lead to confrontation. And that is when things went wrong and we are not really responsible for the consequences.
Al-Monitor: Holding the referendum was signaling a clear intent for a popular mandate for declaring independence. That is what your father, Massoud Barzani, certainly said. Assessing the reaction you had from the main stakeholders, would you say the world is not ready for an independent Kurdistan?
Barzani: Well, obviously it wasn’t. But expressing a desire for the will of a nation of how they want to live is not a crime. This is what our people did. Whenever there were negotiations about future relations between the Kurdistan Region and Baghdad, the response was that this [the view articulated by the Kurdish side] did not necessarily reflect the will of all the Kurds so it was necessary to know what the Kurdish people want. Now we do know what they want: 92% voted “yes” in favor of independence.
Al-Monitor: Do you believe you can continue as part of Iraq given how dysfunctional this relationship has been and seems to continue to be?
Barzani: When a nation expresses its desire for the way of life they want to have and to secure and guarantee the future of their children, that is what matters above all else. But when the world doesn’t accept this and reacts the way it did, this flies in the face of all the values and the principles and the charter of the United Nations that gives every nation the right of self-determination. The referendum was a peaceful and civilized exercise in democracy. I don’t think the Kurdish people should be held responsible or punished for saying how they want to live.
Al-Monitor: If you were to assess the reasons as to why the referendum went horribly awry, how would you list them in order of importance? Resistance from Baghdad, Iran, Turkey, the United States? Kurdish disunity? Poor timing?
Barzani: We had many conversations with many countries, including the Iraqis, the United States, the West, our neighbors. We didn’t hear any of them object to the principle of self-determination or that they were against independence per se. We heard concerns about the timing. We didn’t believe the reasons put forward to us justified postponing the referendum. I am talking mainly about the United States and the Iraqis here and some European countries. Their concerns were mainly on three points. One was that they believed that the referendum would negatively impact the fight against the Islamic State [IS]. Second, that the current prime minister would have trouble getting re-elected. And third, that tensions in disputed territories may lead to military confrontation. We had our own answers to all three of these points. First of all, our determination to fight IS had nothing to do with our relationship with Baghdad. If you look back to how IS emerged to begin with, you can easily see that it was the failure of the political system in Baghdad that led to economic collapse, a security vacuum and the military collapse of 12 Iraqi divisions, with all of their weapons and equipment falling into the hands of IS. In less than a month IS became one of the strongest armed forces in the region. And when they turned against us it was the determination of our people and bravery of our peshmergas with the support of the coalition forces that stopped IS. Baghdad at the time objected to our being given heavy weapons and the salaries of our peshmerga were cut and our share of the Iraqi national budget has been frozen since 2014. The decision to fight IS was our own. No matter the state of our relations with Baghdad we shall always remain committed to fighting international terrorism. We were ready to sign an agreement with Baghdad and the coalition forces committing ourselves to continue to fight IS and to fully cooperate with them in this fight.
Al-Monitor: You mean during and after the referendum?
Al-Monitor: And they were not convinced?
Barzani: No. As to the second point, regarding Prime Minister Abadi’s re-election, we believe our influence to help re-elect anybody is very limited because the election system in place in Iraq is designed to assure the Shiites are a majority.
Al-Monitor: But your backing of one Shiite group versus another surely matters?
Barzani: Let me explain. The nomination of the candidate is the most important phase in this process. We know the next prime minister will definitely come from a Shiite bloc. If they are all united, the voices of the Sunnis and the Kurds combined would be irrelevant. If not, that is when, if nobody secures a clear majority, that the coalition building, the bargaining starts …That’s when we and the other voices come into play. We were ready even then to get into negotiations about choosing the best candidate, option for the future in line with the interests of the coalition, the West and above all the Iraqi people. So again the referendum did not prejudice this process or its outcome in any way. Finally, the point about the presence of peshmergas in the disputed territory leading to military confrontation with Iraqi forces — let me just remind you that the peshmergas were in those areas for a reason. It's because Iraqi forces failed to defend them from IS and left. We never said the referendum was going to draw borders between Kurdistan or the rest of Iraq. We were very clear that we were availing ourselves of our right enshrined in Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution [providing for a referendum in the disputed territories].
Al-Monitor: It's often argued that had you left Kirkuk out of the referendum, we would not have been where we are today. Looking back, do you think it was a mistake to include Kirkuk?
Barzani: There were two views on that. Some believed that the referendum should solely cover the current administrative region of the Kurdistan Regional Government [KRG]. Others argued that since no definitive decisions about drawing, imposing new borders, were being made, it made no difference. If an Iraqi Kurd living in Germany or elsewhere can vote in the referendum, why would a Kurd living in the disputed territories be denied that right?
Al-Monitor: Another argument as to why Kirkuk had to be included was that if it were not the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan [PUK] would not have been on board for the referendum. But then we had Bafel Talabani [oldest son of the late PUK leader Jalal Talabani] come out just before the referendum and essentially declare in a video message that the status of Kirkuk could be deferred. Maybe that was a signal that needed to be heeded?
Barzani: There were many PUK leaders who insisted that Kirkuk should be included. People who were actually in the leadership and they were who we were negotiating with.
Al-Monitor: Why did the United States come out so harshly against the referendum?
Barzani: I don’t know. You have to ask them. When we were weighing all their concerns we concluded there was nothing wrong with the referendum and would not have any negative consequences.
Al-Monitor: Had the United States not been so publicly vocal about its opposition to the referendum before and after it was held, do you believe the Iraqi government could have acted with the same degree of forcefulness and as you see it, aggression against the Kurds? Did Washington’s policies embolden Baghdad?
Barzani: They were emboldened by the lack of response or actions by the international community and also of course the United States. If they had not accepted Iraq taking unconstitutional measures, and reacting disproportionately to the referendum, then probably the Iraqi government would not have felt encouraged to use military force to settle political differences with millions of people in a country called Iraq. The people voting in the referendum were Iraqi citizens. The United States could have ensured, and convinced Baghdad, that the results of the referendum would not automatically lead to a unilateral declaration of Kurdish independence. This was just a vote.
Why do the Kurds always have to please others, defer to the agendas of others? We want to live in peace.
Al-Monitor: The US response to that would be that Iraqi forces have every much of a right to be in the disputed territories, say like Kirkuk, as you do and that Iraqi forces did not attack you but rather moved in and that you then withdrew. That there was no confrontation between your forces and Iraqi government forces.
Barzani: That is not true. We said we were ready to negotiate with Baghdad before and after the referendum. The referendum was meant to give us a popular mandate to do this. We have always said that the fate of Kirkuk and the rest of the disputed territories should be decided according to Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution. There was nothing done on our side to impose our will on the fate of those regions. Iraq used military force to drive the peshmergas out. It was an act of aggression against their own people.
Al-Monitor: There seems to be some confusion as to what actually happened. Did you fight with Iraqi security forces?
Barzani: Of course. Prior to the fight there was a military buildup in those regions and Baghdad’s intention was crystal clear. Despite all the calls from KRG officials and party leaders for peaceful negotiations, Baghdad’s military buildup grew. Instead of negotiating with the KRG, some elements within Baghdad were talking to a faction within the PUK to cut a deal about how these troops should move in and the idea was [that] some of these forces should come to a military base called K1 and to the oil fields of Kirkuk. There was no talk of moving these people into the city itself. Apparently different deals were made.
Al-Monitor: Who were making these deals?
Barzani: A faction within the PUK. I don’t like to personalize. But it is well-established who, and people know. [Author's note: Barzani is most likely referring to the PUK's Bafel Talabani and his mother, Hero Talabani].
Al-Monitor: Was another country involved?
Barzani: The Iranians, the Iraqis with the Popular Mobilization Units with a faction of the PUK. And they had some discussions with officials of both the United States and the United Kingdom and that’s based on what they were saying. That they had already been consulting with the embassies and Baghdad.
Al-Monitor: Was Turkey involved in any of the deal-making for Kirkuk?
Barzani: Not that I am aware.
Al-Monitor: Do you think in the absence of Kirkuk you could still have a viable independent Kurdistan?
Barzani: The whole idea of independence is not just about a city or a region. It's the desire of a nation wherever they may be. Kirkuk is important and it's historically been a part of Kurdistan. Now it's disputed. But what did the Iraqi government do to implement Article 140 of the constitution since 2005? What a future Kurdish entity would include is subject to negotiation and we have a mechanism for settling what belongs to whom and where. But the notion of independence itself was rejected.
Al-Monitor: Now that you have lost all these territories, do you believe you enjoy the same level of leverage you did prior to the referendum? What incentive would any Iraqi leader have to negotiate with the Kurds at this point?
Barzani: Look at our history for the past hundred years. When Saddam was in power he controlled all of Kurdistan. Did we disappear? Didn’t we come back? Of course. What belongs to Kurdistan belongs to Kurdistan. We will never give up our land or the well-being of our people.
Al-Monitor: Do you believe the current situation in Iraq makes it easier for IS to make a comeback?
Barzani: The whole world is making a huge mistake thinking that the military defeat of IS will eradicate its ideology. They lost territory and were military defeated but they were not eliminated. They are still out there and regrouping, attacking. You have to look at the root causes that lead to the rise of such terrorist organizations. Has there been any real attempt to address them? No. Discrimination, exclusion of different communities. Not accepting them as equal partners. Tell me where in Iraq is stable, is safe, where services are provided? Where is water, where is electricity? Where is all the money going? Iraq is a very rich country. It's the mismanagement of its wealth and resources and the discrimination against certain groups that fractured the country. Kurdistan was and remains by far the most secure and stable part of Iraq. Everyone who knows Iraq accepts this. But the military attacks against Kurdistan last year have cast a shadow and beg the question of why anyone would want to destabilize the most stable part of the country.
Al-Monitor: Does the threat of further Iraqi aggression against you exist?
Barzani: This whole thing was part of the same package: to undermine the rule of the KRG. A deliberate misinterpreting of the intentions of the Kurds in the referendum. It was just a vote. They tried to marginalize, undermine and isolate Kurdistan. Of course there were talks among the regional countries and Baghdad sent its own envoys to both Tehran and to Ankara and they agreed on how to react to the Kurdish referendum. Baghdad often talks about the sovereignty of the country, that they do not accept any interference from other countries, yet it was the Iraqi envoys who went to the neighboring countries and asked for their involvement and participation in coming to the aid of Iraq to deal with an internal issue within Iraq.
Al-Monitor: There is quite a bit of talk that Ankara and Baghdad are discussing a joint operation against the PKK [Kurdistan Workers Party] in Sinjar. Is one likely?
Barzani: I don’t know.
Al-Monitor: What happens when a new version of IS re-emerges and the United States comes knocking on your door for help again, having failed to defend you against Iraqi forces?
Barzani: Our commitment to fight terrorism has nothing to do with our political relations with any country. We will fight terrorism no matter what. Had we been fighting on behalf of somebody else when we were being deprived of weapons, then we would not have fought. We fought against an enemy that brought Baghdad to its knees. We saved the country.
Al-Monitor: So the United States can continue to count on you as an ally?
Barzani: Of course, we are allies even if we have disagreements on certain issues, but when it comes to the fight against terrorism, we are very important and active members of the coalition against terrorists.
Al-Monitor: The Trump administration describes one of its top foreign policy goals as curbing Iran’s influence. Do you agree with the view that the events that unfolded after the referendum, with Washington’s acquiescence, some would call it cooperation, has had the opposite effect.
Barzani: Let's just look at the facts. With all due respect to Iran and any other country rightly pursuing its own interests, this should not be interpreted as a statement against them. But since 2003 till the present, the influence of Iran in the region has definitely increased. Did they play their cards well? I think they did. Did they take advantage of the opportunities available to them? Yes, they did. They are very smart players and good at expanding their influence and that’s what we see today. I am not speaking about the current or previous US administrations in particular, but every time they, say, declare their intents publicly, these are not matched by the realities on the ground.
Al-Monitor: Is there a lesson here for Syria’s Kurds?
Barzani: The situation of the Kurds in Syria is far more complex. There are other internal issues in Syria and among the Syrian Kurds themselves. But overall there is no political agreement between the Kurds in Syria and any other country in the coalition against IS. The Kurds by nature are good fighters and I think the entire world gives them credit for that, be they in Syria or Iraq. The Syrian Kurds fought well against IS and so far they are just being supported to continue that fight. Whether or not there will be political relations between the Syrian Kurds and the rest of the world is another matter. We don’t know and so far we haven’t seen much movement on that front.
Al-Monitor: Now they are fighting the Turkish army as well and we recently saw a parliamentary delegation from the KRG that included representatives from the KRG travel to Afrin to show solidarity. Is there a rapprochement between the KRG and the Rojava administration?
Barzani: Let me be clear. The Kurds are not related to one particular party or group. Turkey is saying they are fighting one particular group and not the Kurds per se. The solidarity shown by the KRG has nothing to do with political disagreements or alignments with one group or the other.
There are huge numbers of civilians who are caught in the middle of this conflict. Many of these people have affiliations with us, sympathize with us [the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iraq]. We have historical and political relations with them. We are one nation. The solidarity is shown with the Kurdish people. These innocent civilians need humanitarian support and we are ready to provide any assistance we can to ease their suffering. We are against war and issues that can be resolved peacefully should be addressed as such.
Al-Monitor: Are you willing to mediate between Turkey and the PKK/YPG [Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units]?
Barzani: If there is anything we can do to save innocent lives we certainly will.
Al-Monitor: In the past you used to say that you wanted the PKK out of Sinjar. Does that still hold true?
Barzani: Yes, we believe that if any Kurdish group or faction is from a different country they should focus on their own problems in their own country. Exporting their problems to a different country will only make things more complicated.
Al-Monitor: Does that apply to the Iranian Kurdish groups as well? We hear they are being told by KRG authorities to move away from their positions along the Iraq-Iran border.
Barzani: The Iranian Kurds, relatively speaking, have been more quiet and have responded positively to the call of the KRG to not conduct military operations against Iran. I think it's a completely different situation with them.
Al-Monitor: We saw Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani travel to Tehran recently and this spurred speculation about a recalibration of your relations with regional countries, neighbors. Is that happening?
Barzani: We are surrounded by Iran, Turkey and Syria and of course in Iraq we have our own issues. We have no intention of fueling animosity between our people and these countries that are our neighbors. We have always extended the hand of friendship based on mutual respect and interests to them. As long as these countries do not pose a threat or undermine our constitutional rights we are ready to work with them to promote stability, prosperity and peace in the region.
Al-Monitor: Is it true that your father was invited by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Ankara recently and that he refused to go because of the Afrin operation?
Barzani: I haven’t heard anything about that.
Al-Monitor: How do you assess your relationship with Turkey in the aftermath of the referendum? What has changed?
Barzani: Turkey has been a critical partner for the KRG. Economically it's been the corridor between Kurdistan and the rest of the world. Throughout the turbulence around the referendum Turkey never sealed its borders, and that helped prevent a humanitarian crisis in Kurdistan. It was a very important gesture. Sure, there are always tensions, ups and downs, in relations, but let's look at the bright future we have together.
Al-Monitor: Do you think part of Turkey’s opposition to the referendum was driven by President Erdogan’s domestic agenda?
Barzani: Yes, I think a lot of it was.
Al-Monitor: Turning to your own domestic agenda, when are you going to be holding presidential and parliamentary elections?
Barzani: The KRG was for early elections, at least the KDP, the dominant party, was calling for early elections even before the Iraqi [parliamentary elections on May 12] so that the Kurds would come out united and would have much more influence in Baghdad. Now that we are not allowed to be Kurds and need to be Iraqis we need to have full Iraqi rights, full constitutional rights and we needed to establish a united Kurdish bloc. This is what the KDP was pushing for. But unfortunately other parties in Kurdistan, some for political reasons, believing that creating their own coalition would win them more votes, created their own. And the PUK was not ready to take part in elections before the Iraqi ones because of their own internal issues. That is why they didn’t come forward and they were a critical partner. They had to be on board for any decisions we made to hold elections. Now it's too late because the Electoral Board needs to be given advance notice before any elections are held and the deadline has expired. Right now the closest time to our elections would be the first week of September.
Al-Monitor: Who is going to run for president? Do any candidates leap to mind?
Barzani: The issue of the presidency is negotiable. This parliament is not ready to discuss. We need to elect a new parliament that will have a mandate to legislate the new structure of the government. This includes debating the role of the presidency and whether it's needed at all and if so how the president should be elected — directly by the people or by the parliament.
Al-Monitor: So can the Kurds forge a common front ahead of the Iraqi parliamentary elections?
Barzani: I think the Kurdish people expect leadership from the Kurdish parties. If any party tries to hold their own personal interests and agendas above those of the people, they will be held accountable. People expect the parties to set aside their quarrels and to come together. I think there is a real chance this could be achieved. There are ongoing talks and the environment is much more promising for unity than before. Even if they run from different slates or groups, there is a chance that they can form a common front. The most important part of these Iraqi elections will be post-election coalitions that are formed and there will be lots of people knocking on the Kurds’ door.
Al-Monitor: Finally, the economy, what is going on with the airports and how will you survive with the loss of Kirkuk oil revenue, among other things?
Barzani: Shutting the airports was an unnecessary sanctioning of the Kurds. It was done out of revenge and spite, I believe. And it's unconstitutional because airports should not be shut down for political reasons. There have been negotiations to reopen Erbil and Sulaimaniyah airports between Baghdad and the KRG. There were talks about sharing data and information, as part of an integrated data system, and we agreed. Then there was the matter of immigration, visas and customs. The KRG agreed to go along with any demands from Baghdad that were constitutionally justified. But when Baghdad ran out of excuses for not reopening the airports, it came up with objections about security saying the airports were a national port of entry that fell under the jurisdiction of the federal authorities. The KRG accepted that the local units currently controlling and securing the airports report directly to the federal authorities. There are no more excuses left to not reopen the airports. It's all political and it's part of the government’s election campaign so an entire nation is being penalized just for the sake of securing its victory at the polls by playing the Iraqi nationalist card. We met recently with Prime Minister Abadi and other officials and he promised that the airports would be open soon. We have heard the word "soon" used many times before. Let's see if they keep their promise.
In terms of revenue sharing from oil, etc., this is all laid out in the Iraqi Constitution and if Baghdad had honored its side of the deal we would not be where we are today. Every month that passes without Kurdish civil servants being paid their salaries by the central government, without the KRG’s share of the national budget being disbursed, the question of where those funds are going becomes ever more pressing. Will that accumulated money be repaid to the Kurds? There is no escrow account. Has anyone asked Baghdad where does that money, which has remain largely unpaid since 2014, go?
Al-Monitor: What about the internally displaced Iraqis, is the government not sending any funds to support them?
Barzani: No, they are not, and by the way, why are people still fleeing the rest of Iraq and still coming to live in tents, in camps in Iraqi Kurdistan? It's because of the continuing lack of services and security in their hometowns and villages. Because Kurdistan is still the safest, freest and most secure part of Iraq.