American officials tend to lionize Iraqi Kurdistan, and not without reason. Iraqi Kurdistan has, for more than two decades, been stable and relatively secure. And while its claims to be democratic are a bit exaggerated, its transformation in a relatively short period of time is astounding.
That said, the region was never democratic—the freest and fairest election it had was in 1992—and then the leaders simply massaged the process in order to maintain their hold. Regional President Masud Barzani, for example, is officially limited to two terms by the constitution, but got around the problem by extending his second term extra-legally. Simply put, today, Iraqi Kurdistan is a dictatorship.
The two ruling families dominate politics and society. Masud Barzani is president and lives in a palace complex in a resort inherited from Saddam Hussein. His nephew, Nechirvan Barzani, is prime minister. His uncle, Hoshyar Zebari, was Iraq’s foreign minister and is now finance minister. Masud’s eldest son, Masrour Barzani, leads the intelligence service; and his second son Mansour is a general, as is Masud’s brother Wajy. Barzani’s nephew Sirwan owns the regional cell phone company which, while purchased with public money, remains a private holding. Barzani’s sons are frequently in Washington D.C. They have their wives give birth in Sibley Hospital in order to ensure the next generation has American citizenship, and Masrour Barzani acquired an $11 million mansion in McLean, Virginia. Hanging out in Tyson’s Corner, Virginia, some of Masoud Barzani’s daughters-in-law have, according to Kurdish circles, been known to introduce themselves as “Princesses of Kurdistan” as they visit high-end shops accompanied by their own rather unnecessary (while in the United States) security details.
(Barzani isn’t the only family dynasty, just the most important one. Former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s wife Hero Ibrahim Ahmad runs a number of media outlets, “non-governmental organizations,” and maintains a stranglehold over the finances of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the political party Talabani founded. She calls the shots for her son Qubad, whom she maneuvered into the deputy premiership. Lahur Talabani, the former president’s nephew, is head of his party’s counter-terrorism unit. President Talabani, when deciding who from his party should join him in Baghdad, appointed his brother-in-law Latif Rashid to be a minister.)
Family means everything in Kurdistan. When Masud Barzani met with President Obama several years ago at the White House, he brought with him Masrour and nephew Nechirvan even though the latter at the time was out of office and without any governmental role. Barham Salih, the serving prime minister, stayed home. Barham simply didn’t come from the right family. The Barzani Charity Foundation has “urged” other non-governmental organizations not to compete in certain sectors, or face the consequences. Meanwhile, its funds—Kurdish NGO workers and journalist say—go as much toward private jets and six-figure salaries as they do to assistance.
Masud Barzani is a dictator. As Islamist terrorists rage over the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, Barzani remains calm to that supposed provocation. But when Sardasht Osman, a young Kurdish journalist, penned a relatively innocent poem highlighting how his life and fortunes would change if he married Barzani’s daughter—a subtle and sophisticated poke at the region’s nepotism and corruption—Barzani’s security service led by son Masrour apparently kidnapped and executed him. Family trumps everything.
For policymakers and businessmen in the United States or Europe who seek only stability and do not prioritize democracy, that may be fine. After all, aside from Israel and perhaps now Tunisia, the Middle East isn’t known for democracy. That stability, however, is on the verge of breaking down and, ironically, the reason is family.
Masud Barzani is nearing 70 years old. Like many Middle Eastern potentates, he is carefully considering his succession. While many in the West assume that Nechirvan Barzani, on paper the second-most powerful Kurdish figure, would be next in line, Masud has apparently decided to cast his lot with son Masrour. There have been subtle personnel changes and alterations in portfolios in recent years as Masrour has consolidated power. Take the case of Karim Sinjari: In theory the interior minister answering to Nechirvan Barzani, Sinjari has seen Masrour encroach on his power and portfolio in recent years. Whereas Sinjari once was responsible for the region’s impressive security, today Sinjari’s title may be the same but he holds sway over little more than local and traffic police forces.
The result of the power struggle matters. Both Nechirvan and Masrour Barzani would be corrupt by any American standard. Certainly, that’s a more difficult call by Iraqi and Kurdish law which doesn’t define business and political conflicts of interest in the same way. Still, both the Barzanis (and Talabanis) confuse personal, party, and public funds. That said, while Nechirvan Barzani may be corrupt, it is in the Tammany Hall sense: his machine may be shady at times, but it delivers not only to his immediate inner circle but to the public at large. Nechirvan is skilled, works with both supporters and opposition, and is generally popular. He does not exaggerate his academic or military prowess; he is self-confident enough to know that he need not bother, and that the general public sees through and privately jokes about embellishments. Nechirvan also knows that it is far better to co-opt or ignore opponents than use force to imprison or kill them.
Masrour is not so nuanced. Most of the crises which soiled the Barzani name over the past decade—the imprisonment of political critics, the attacks on critics in Virginia and Vienna, and the murder of journalists seem to rest at Masrour’s feet.
The problem may be generational: The Barzanis are much like the Saudis. Both Masud Barzani’s father Mullah Mustafa Barzani and Ibn Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia, were tribal leaders. Even at the height of their power, they remained close to the people. With every generation, however, the Saudis and Barzanis grew more isolated. Masud understands why his father was popular and may genuinely desire to be the same sort of leader, but he has allowed a huge distance—both literal and figurative—to develop between himself and the people he supposedly represents. He does not mix and mingle. The newest generation, however, has no real memory of their grandfather, and so has a very limited sense of the responsibility they inherit. They were born to power and see it as an entitlement. If Masoud Barzani’s grandsons enter the Erbil airport or any other government complex, scores of servants will bow and genuflect toward them. Grow up with endless servants and grown men singing your praises, little discipline and a sense that rules and the law are beneath you, and the same sort of perverse morality and mindset that afflicted Saddam Hussein’s sons and Muammar Gaddafi’s children can take root. Whereas Nechirvan uses power with nuance and still seeks to deliver, Masrour can simply be cruel. Human-rights monitors say that businessmen who do not pay him kickbacks are imprisoned, and journalists who write critically of him or his father disappear. He is quick to threaten, and seldom delivers. Nechirvan is smart; Masrour is not. Prior to the Islamic State’s seizure of Mosul, for example, Nechirvan understood the danger they posed; Masrour was too clever by half and apparently thought he could use them against political enemies.
Various people have tried to warn Masud about his sons’ behavior. In the past, Barzani supporters would say that Masud was simply unaware of their antics. Seldom does anyone hear such excuses anymore. Kurdish officials—and even Barzani family members—whisper that, like Saddam Hussein, Barzani is aware of the excesses and behavior of his sons but simply does not care. Family trumps Kurdistan, let alone democracy.
What does this mean for the United States? Privately, both diplomats and intelligence circles seem to understand the dynamics of the Masrour-Nechirvan split and, if it is not too strong a term, the psychopathic trends within Masrour’s behavior. They have expressed their displeasure by withdrawing diplomatic etiquette and searching Masrour and his delegation at Dulles airport, but there is a limit to what American officials are willing to do. That said, post-Masud Kurdistan—and potentially U.S.-Kurdish relations—will be far different with Masrour predominant than with Nechirvan in charge. The question for U.S. policymakers and perhaps the intelligence community as well is whether they are content to watch a slow-motion train wreck or whether leverage exists to prevent worst-case scenarios from developing. What they should under no circumstances take for granted is security in Kurdistan. Leadership matters.