Barzani’s Days as Kurdish Leader Are Numbered

Opinions 01:08 PM - 2023-08-20
 Michael Rubin.

Michael Rubin.

Written by Michael Rubin, published on

Iraqi Kurdistan is neither as secure nor stable as the regional prime minister and heir apparent of the powerful Barzani family believes. Mismanagement and corruption contribute to an economic downturn, and his old strategy of buying friends will falter as money runs out.

In recent weeks, Masrour has tried to pump up his credentials and his reputation among ordinary Kurds with a film reminiscent of the propaganda efforts of strongmen like Saddam Hussein and Idi Amin. The film seeks to emphasize Masrour’s resilience. But Kurdish Facebook questions how resilient Barzani can be when he brings air conditioners to cool himself during outdoor speeches even as ordinary Kurds face daily blackouts amid skyrocketing electricity and fuel prices.

Already, Kurds are asking just what he has accomplished. Is Masrour as astute and agile as he claims in his documentary? I asked a number of diplomats, Kurdish civil society leaders, students, and some officials from Barzani’s own party to assess his rule. The results were not pretty.

While foreign officials recognized that Masrour holds more power, they prefer to engage with his cousin, Nechirvan Barzani, the Kurdistan region’s titular president. Negotiating with Nechirvan is akin to working with William “Boss” Tweed, the head of the Democrats’ 19th century Tammany Hall political machine; dealing with Masrour is like working with New York mobster Frank Costello.  Both might be corrupt, but they differ in professionalism and delivery.

On his twitter handle, Masrour says he is “building a stronger Kurdistan.” The overwhelming consensus, however, is that Masrour has failed.


-His push for an independence referendum caused the Kurdish government to lose territory to the federal government, including some of northern Iraq’s most lucrative fields. He rejected a White House offer to support his referendum in exchange for a two-year delay. Had he not acted rashly, Iraqi Kurdistan might be independent today.

-His mismanagement, greed, and overreach has forced the complete surrender of Iraqi Kurdistan’s oil and gas file to Baghdad. The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) is at its weakest position in Baghdad since 2003 — or perhaps even earlier, given his father Masoud’s collaboration with late dictator Saddam Hussein.

-Whereas his ailing father sought balance and unity in his later years after the divisions of the mid-1970s and the civil war of 1994-97, Masrour and his brother and enforcer Waysi Barzani have returned Iraqi Kurdistan to the worst party unity in a quarter century. As cousin turns on cousin, and brother on brother, the KDP faces its worst internal crisis since 1975.

–Corruption has always been bad in Iraqi Kurdistan, perhaps even worse than in the rest of Iraq, but it has reached new peaks. Rather than build a new Dubai, Masrour now builds a new Eritrea. Young Kurds, many of them highly educated but unable to find space in a corrupt system, trust their lives to human traffickers. They flee to Europe, many dying en route. If Masrour believed his own propaganda, he would not need to fear regional journalists. He is terrified of truth though, and so he imprisons them.

-The Peshmerga is at its weakest. While Masrour now brags about defeating the Islamic State, Shiite militias actually liberated the cities, hemorrhaging post-war Kurdish influence. Masrour warehoused the equipment Kurds needed for the fight in order to ensure his own power. Top generals even tried to flee as the Islamic State marched toward Erbil nine years ago. To this day, Masrour classifies airport manifests to hide who left in the hour of need.

-In Ankara, he acts as a supplicant. He remains silent as Turks kill civilians in his territory. 

It is always calm before a storm. While the West may believe they can do business with a dictatorship if it keeps the region stable and constrains Iranian influence, they are wrong on two counts. First, Barzani’s smuggling to Iran continues apace; he will deal with anyone to augment power. Second, Kurds frustrated by his cruelty and incompetence are ready to be rid of him. His father, Masoud, dominated Iraqi Kurdish affairs for 40 years. The question is whether Masrour will be able to survive in the arena for another two.  

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