Michael Rubin |
Iraqi Kurdistan pitches itself as a US ally. When its interests coincide with the United States, it can be a genuine partner. Too often, however, Machiavellian games lead to a discrepancy between the pro-American rhetoric of Iraqi Kurdish leaders and their actions.
Much of the problem rests among the ruling families. The split between the Barzani tribe and the Talabani family dates back to the mid-1970s, but it exploded into hostilities two decades later. Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) had nearly tied in the Kurdistan Regional Government’s first elections and they subsequently agreed to split power. Revenue-sharing disagreements, however, led to civil war and an effective division of the region into two. When I first visited Iraqi Kurdistan in 2000, for example, I would need security clearance from KDP intelligence before I could travel from Erbil to Sulaimani, the major city in the PUK-run region.
Subsequent efforts to reunite the two have been more cosmetic than real. The core problem is that for all the Barzani family’s rhetoric, they are tribal rather than nationalistic: Everything for the KDP revolves around family. Both politics and business revolve around family. Later in his life, Jalal Talabani also promoted family interests but not to the extreme of the Barzanis. The Talabanis also took a more tolerant, progressive attitude toward broader society; the general freedoms and permissiveness that characterize Sulaimani in comparison to the KDP-run cities of Erbil and Duhok reflect this. Put another way, Kurds in both regions complain about their governments’ failures. In Sulaimani, authorities see this as blowing off steam and seldom intervene; in Erbil, the same complaints might result in a beating in police headquarters and/or a multi-year prison sentence.
The KDP obsession with tribal interests has long frustrated American authorities. During the early years of US occupation, KDP officials repeatedly undercut American operations against Iranian intelligence in exchange for short-term gains from Tehran. Former Prime Minister (and now regional President) Nechirvan Barzani even tipped off late Qods Force chief Qassem Soleimani about forthcoming operations. During the fight against the Islamic State, the KDP repeatedly demanded equipment but, when it was provided, either sold it for profit or warehoused it for use against their Kurdish rivals. And, while KDP fighters conducted joint missions with US special operators, they sometimes put American partners at risk when they unilaterally released unredacted videos of their missions s their priority was less defeating Islamic State terrorists and more suggesting (falsely) that the Americans favored the KDP over the PUK. Most recently, KDP Prime Minister Masrour Barzani has imprisoned local journalists on espionage charges for the crime of having talked to American diplomats.
Since the death of Jalal Talabani and his widow Hero Khan’s dementia, the main powers in the PUK have been Talabani’s sons Bafel and Qubad, and their cousin Lahur. Qubad serves as deputy to Masrour Barzani. In reality, however, he has become the Tariq Aziz to the KDP’s Saddam. He holds no power. Masrour seemingly delights in waiting until Qubad gives assurances to Western diplomats and then raising an objection that forces the powerless Qubad to violate his word.
Bafel, meanwhile, shares leadership of the PUK with Lahur but aspires to a more unitary control. American officials, however, consider Lahur, who leads the local intelligence services, to be more reliable, intelligent, and competent, and a useful interlocutor in a difficult neighborhood.
Lahur’s relationship with Washington is one reason he has found himself in the crosshairs of both Turkey and Iran. First, Turkey: Whereas Turkey was once a solid counterterror partner for the West, under Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it has played a double game: There is ample evidence, for example, that Turkish officials facilitated if not supported the Islamic State at a time when the United States was seeking to counter it. Turkey, meanwhile, has solidified its ties with Masrour in a devil’s bargain: Barzani’s personal business interests in exchange for sovereignty. Whereas four year ago, Masrour Barzani spoke of a referendum for independence, today he has transformed his region into as much a colony for Turkish interests as is the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Barzani’s corruption and cash-for-betrayal schemes have meanwhile increased the cachet of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its Syrian affiliates, both of which Turkey seeks to eradicate.