Once Upon a Time in the Nepotist Republic of Barzanistan

Mullah Mustafa Barzani, longtime leader of the Kurdish independence movement in Iraq, and father of the incumbent president of Iraqi Kurdistan, Massoud Barzani, said back in 1973 that if the United States helped Kurdistan to gain its independence, they would be “ready to become the 51st state”.[1] It appears as if the first part, at least, is about to become reality. One June 7, 2017, Massoud Barzani announced that an official independence referendum for Iraqi Kurdistan will take place on September 25, 2017. In April, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said he would respect the results of the referendum. Given its strategic location, the US has groomed Iraqi Kurdistan as another foothold for its imperialist ambitions in the region, and with Israel increasingly becoming an international pariah, and Saudi Arabia under intense scrutiny over its support for Islamic fundamentalism the world over, the timing of this referendum could not be more perfect for Washington.

Iraqi Kurdistan might be more accurately called Barzanistan, given the near-total domination of the region’s political and economic system by the Barzani family. The Barzanis have been power players in the area for centuries; before the advent of modern capitalism, they were a prominent feudal family. After WWII, Mullah Mustafa was part of the short-lived Soviet-backed Republic of Kurdistan that was established in western Iran, and after a brief sojourn in the Soviet Union, he returned as a staunch anti-communist to his ancestral homeland in Iraq to lead the movement for independence there. Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Barzanistan has sought to present itself as an oasis of democratic development and economic modernism in a troubled region, but in reality it is a violently tribal, corrupt, and patriarchal society. Political dissidents, journalists, and individuals critical of Barzani are regularly jailed or “disappeared”.[2] When a regional newspaper accused the Barzani family of being involved in oil smuggling, it was targeted by the government and threatened with legal action.[3] Most of the major businesses in the region are controlled by the Barzani family. Officially Barzani himself is worth $2 billion, but there is almost no difference between his personal holdings, and the funds controlled by the government and his Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). Under his presidency, Barzani has overseen the transformation of public spaces into personal fiefdoms for himself and his family members. Even Michael Rubin, in an article for the Middle East Forum, a conservative think tank whose stated goal is to promote “American interests”, admitted to the ubiquitous corruption, embezzlement, and nepotism engaged in by the Barzanis.[4] Not that the opposition party, the nominally social-democratic Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the KDP’s bitter rival during the region civil war in the 1990s is much better, but level of wealth it controls pales in comparison to that of Barzani. The head of the PUK, former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, only has a personal fortune of about $400 million, a far cry from the billions controlled by the Barzanis.

Though elections in Barzanistan are considered “free and fair” by international standards, the reality is something quite different. Given its dominance of the economy and state institutions, the KDP has enjoyed a comfortable majority in every post-invasion election. Barzani himself was appointed president in 2005 by the parliament, then directly re-elected in 2009 with 69.6% of the vote. But when it came time for presidential elections in 2013, the KDP decided otherwise, citing regional instability and the rise of ISIS as justification for illegally extending Barzani’s presidential term for another two years. In 2015 Barzani’s term expired, but he has remained in office despite this with the backing of all the usual suspects.

Barzanistan also loves to present itself as a beacon of women’s rights and empowerment. Propaganda videos featuring women Peshmerga fighters in makeup were devoured by the western media, as well as western “leftists” eager to fetishize these “beautiful” and “exotic” femme fatales. Barzani himself frequently proclaims his dedication to women’s rights, even saying on International Women’s Day that Kurdish women have “made more sacrifices than men in history”.[5] And the western establishment loves it. But as always, the west’s cynical exploitation of “liberated” Middle Eastern women belies an ugly reality. Female genital mutilation and “honor killings” are widespread. A 2010 study found that 72% of women in Iraqi Kurdistan had been subjected to some kind of FGM.[6] In Garmyan and New Kirkuk, the FGM rate exceeds 80%. About 500 honor killings are reported every year, but the real number is far higher. An investigation commissioned by the European parliament posited that there is at least one honor killing per day in Barzanistan capital, Ebril.[7]

The other irony underlying the progressive image presented by Barzani and the western media is the rampant anti-leftist policies of the Barzani regime and the KDP. The major rival to the KDP’s ambitions of hegemony in Greater Kurdistan is the far-left Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) that was established by the formerly Marxist-Leninist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its allies. Barzanistan has worked closely with the Turkish regime in its efforts to crush the PKK, allowing Turkish warplanes to attack PKK targets in Iraqi Kurdistan, and maintaining a blockade against the revolutionary experiment in the Federation of Northern Syria (Rojava), controlled by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), one of the KCK’s constituent parties, and its armed wings, the People’s Defense Units (YPG), and the Women’s Defense Units (YPJ). This blockade was even maintained as ISIS attempted to seize Kobane. When Yezidi militia affiliated with the YPG and YPJ liberated the Iraqi town of Sinjar from ISIS, Barzani not only levied another blockade against them, but also denounced them as “terrorists”, and had Peshmerga forces launch sporadic attacks. And this is in the aftermath of ISIS’s genocidal campaign against the Yezidi people. The KDP has sought to opportunistically make itself the de facto leader not just of the Kurdish people, but also other ethnic and religious minorities in the fight against ISIS, even taking advantage of the unrest to seize control of three towns disputed with the Iraqi central government, including the “Kurdish Jerusalem”, Kirkuk. While the KDP is against ISIS, it does not want to see the fight against ISIS take on any kind of revolutionary character, the way it has under the KCK’s leadership.

There are also longstanding links between Israel and the KDP. During the 1960s, Israel armed and trained KDP fighters, and even had advisers within Mullah Mustafa’s command center.[8] Israeli media even broadcast a photograph from the 1960s of Mullah Mustafa and Moshe Dayan embracing one another. These close ties have been maintained and nurtured by the current regime. Israeli media and politicians regularly boast about their good relations with Barzanistan, and in 2014 Netanyahu came out in support for the independence of Barzanistan. Barzani himself has publicly lamented that Iraq’s refusal to recognize Israel has prevented the opening of an Israeli consulate in Ebril.[9] The last thing the Middle East needs is an avowedly pro-Israel state in one of its most important and strategic geopolitical locations (Iraqi Kurdistan shares a sizeable border with Israel’s arch-enemy Iran, and there is no doubt that the apartheid settler state would love to take advantage of this). While Israel has some measure of support from Egypt and Jordan, and has become increasingly closer with Saudi Arabia, an independent Barzanistan would offer to Zionism the unwavering and uncritical regional ally it has never had. Zionism has deep popular support from among the KDP’s constituency, and even friendly relations with the PUK. KDP cybertrolls have become a source of free PR for Israel, winning over both the “sensible centrists” and the hardcore neo-conservatives by pandering to their anti-Arab and anti-Islamic sentiments. Beyond their pro-Zionism, the KDP crowd exhibits in general an Uncle Tom mentality towards the west, seeking to prove themselves as honorary westerners and defenders of “liberal” values; i.e. going along with whatever the foreign policy of the United States, and to a lesser extent the EU, is at the moment.

Israel is not the only reactionary regional power excited at the possibility of an independent Barzanistan. In the wake of the fallout between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Saudi Arabia made vocal its support for Kurdish independence; the official Twitter account of the Saudi regime even Tweeting #standwithkurdistan. Their support comes with a caveat; the KSA and its allies want to be allowed to build military bases in Barzanistan to “counter” “Iranian influence” in exchange for supporting its independence. But it is obvious Saudi Arabia would not stop with just building military bases.[10] The effects of Saudi soft power to spread their ultra-fundamentalist brand of Islam is well-documented. Saudi-funded madrassas and mosques are hotbeds of jihadist recruitment, and have served as a kind of cultural imperialism, undermining and distorting the foundations of liberal-minded societies throughout the Third World. Though Barzanistan is a deeply conservative and reactionary society, Islamism has been mostly kept at bay. Combined, the two Islamist political parties only have sixteen seats in the KRG parliament. And for all of the KDP’s faults, it has maintained a relative level of secularism; religiously motivated terrorist attacks have been rare in Barzanistan. There should be no doubt that with Saudi troops and influence, this secularism will soon be on the defensive.

Barzanistan independence would also serve to deal the final blow to what’s left of the Iraqi state. US foreign policy advisers have made no secret of their plans to partition the Middle East up into sectarian statelets, making the region safer for imperialism. Though Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi has said he would respect the results of an independence referendum, he also protested to Barzani’s unilaterally calling for one, a move which directly contravenes Iraq’s constitution which stipulates that any territorial changes must be approved by the Iraqi state as a whole. There is no doubt that Iraqi Kurds have faced grave injustices in the past by the Iraqi state, but that does not justify unilateral moves like Barzani’s, nor does it justify his outright annexation of the disputed territories. Additionally, around 20% of Iraq’s oil reserves are found in Barzanistan and the areas disputed between the KRG and the Iraqi central government. The Iraqi people have already had most of their oil wealth plundered from them by foreign multinationals that swept in when the previously nationalized oil industry was privatized in the aftermath of the US invasion. If an independence referendum is inevitable at this point, its parameters should be negotiated in accordance with the Iraqi constitution. Iraqis have already faced enough wholesale disenfranchisement from their political system and resources.

Besides the immense benefits for imperialism an independent Barzanistan would provide, there is also a far more glaring problem with Barzani’s independence plans. Iraqi Kurdistan is only one of four regions of historic Kurdistan, and in terms of population, it comes in third, at about 6.5 million. Depending on the overall number of Kurds, that’s only about 14–21% of the total Kurdish population. The majority of Kurds are living in Turkish Kurdistan, which is the historic center of the Kurdish nation. Kurds in Turkey have been subjected to decades of political and cultural repression, not to mention wholesale ethnic cleansing. Until recently, even speaking Kurdish in private was illegal in Turkey. And with the heads of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) in prison, and Erdogan’s renewed war against the PKK, the situation is grim. Kurds have not fared much better in Iran, either, which hosts the second-largest Kurdish population. During the reactionary terror that delivered Iran over to theocracy, Khomeini declared “jihad” against Iranian Kurdistan, a center of revolutionary leftist and communist activity in Iran. Iranian security services regularly rape, torture, and murder Kurdish leftists, and in the aftermath of major rioting in Mahabad in 2015, the Kurdish leftists resumed the armed struggle against the theocratic regime, saying the situation had become unbearable. And in Syria, from the 1960s until the start of the civil war, most Syrian Kurds were not even citizens, and subjected to poverty and discrimination. The Assad government still refuses to negotiate the establishment of a Kurdish autonomous region despite pressure from Russia to do so. The establishment of an independent Barzanistan, essentially a rump Kurdistan, would allow these regimes to escalate the repression against their Kurdish populations, and more easily justify denying their right to self-determination. Nowhere would the danger be greater than in Turkey, where Erdogan’s combination of traditional chauvinist Turkish ultra-nationalism and Ottoman-era Islamism has taken on frighteningly repressive dimensions with the backing of the Trump White House. The Kurds themselves would be among the primary losers of such “independence”.

Leftists have long been at odds on how to respond to the “Kurdish question”. The Barzani regime’s attempts to monopolize the entire discussion has led many leftists to denounce not just Kurdish self-determination as an imperialist plot, but also the Kurds themselves as being imperialist stooges. The KCK shoulders a certain amount of responsibility, too, with its at-times opportunistic behavior and wavering overtures to American imperialism alienating even their own allies. The left has a duty to uphold the right of oppressed nations to self-determination, and there can be little doubt that the Kurds are an oppressed nation, but uncritically endorsing any independence movement, regardless of its goals and backers is playing a dangerous game. As Lenin said, those looking for a “pure” revolution will never find it, and those who outright reject the Kurdish struggle because there is no “perfect” Kurdish socialist organization are just as foolish as those taking a completely uncritical stance. It is absolutely possible to support Kurdish self-determination while also rejecting and opposing the reactionary and imperialist attempts by Barzani and the KDP, the US, and Israel to establish an “independent Kurdistan”. Difficult questions call for critical thinking and nuanced conclusions. At the same time, leftists outside of the Middle East announcing positions and their “support” for or against an issue has little to no material effect. Those in the first world who want to support oppressed nations would best be served by mobilizing against their own governments first, the source of much of this oppression, instead of making hollow declarations on Facebook or Twitter.

[1] Pike, Otis. CIA: The Pike Report. Nottingham: Spokesman, 1977. 212. Print.

[2] An exhaustive list of human rights violations committed by the Kurdistan Regional Government against dissidents can be found here: http://ekurd.net/related-articles/freedom-of-expression-and-journalism-in-iraqi-kurdistan

[3] “Barzani’s KDP Targets Paper That Alleged Oil Smuggling.” Barzani’s KDP Targets Paper That Alleged Oil Smuggling. Committee to Protect Journalists, 05 Aug. 2010. Web. 07 June 2017.

[4] Rubin, Michael. “Is Iraqi Kurdistan a Good Ally?” Middle East Forum. AEI Middle Eastern Outlook, Jan. 2008. Web. 08 June 2017.

[5] “Kurdish Women Made More Sacrifices than Men in History: Barzani.” Kurdistan24.net. Ed. Karzan Sulaivany. Kurdistan24, n.d. Web. 15 June 2017.

[6] “Female Genital Mutilation in Iraqi Kurdistan: An Empirical Study by WADI.” (2013): n. pag. 2010. Web. 7 June 2017.

[7] Kurdish Human Rights Project. “The Increase in Kurdish Women Committing Suicide.” (n.d.): n. pag. European Parliament. Directorate for Citizens’ Rights and Constitutional Affairs, June 2007. Web. 8 June 2017.

[8] Entessar, Nader. “Chapter 5: Kurdish Politics in Regional Context.” Kurdish Politics in the Middle East. Lanham: Lexington, 2010. 161. Print.

[9] Baig, Sadi. “A Clean Break for Israel.” Asia Times, 30 June 2004. Web. 08 June 2017.

[10] “Source: S. Arabia Intends to Builds Military Bases in Iraq’s Kurdistan in Return for Supporting Independence.” Farsnews. Fars News Agency, 11 June 2017. Web. 15 June 2017.