When Bashar al-Assad assumed power in Syria in 2000, Western leaders heralded him as a beacon for reform and economic liberalism. The facade did not last long. His rule contributed to the deaths of a half million Syrians and the displacement of more than five million more.
Western officials apply the same optimism to the Iraqi Kurds. When Masrour Barzani became regional prime minister in 2019, even seasoned columnists like the Kurdish writer Rebin Hardi suggested he could represent change after decades of his father’s ossified rule. Masrour’s behavior quickly disabused them, leaving Masrour increasingly to borrow from late Ugandan leader Idi Amin’s playbook to reset his image.
The Barzanis are tribal, not democratic. Any meaningful political competition occurs as each brother or cousin tries to maneuver for privilege and power within the family. For decades, Masrour and his cousin Nechivran have divided the spoils as each tried to outmaneuver the other. Part of Nechirvan’s play is to depict himself as more Western in his intellect and mannerisms. He does this well. When he meets with Americans or Europeans, he engages and feigns an open mind. Most Kurds see through this. That so many Western scholars fall prey to a cynical maneuver frustrates those in the region who feel the Barzani family now does more harm than good for Kurdish economic, national, and social prosperity and the ability of Kurds to advance economically, socially, and democratically in modern society.
Just as Masrour produced a documentary about his “resilience,” so now does Nechirvan arrange for a book, Road Map to Peace: Critical Perspectives on the Speeches of President Nechirvan Barzani to sing his praises. The moves are not coincidental but merely reflect the latest one-upmanship between the conflicting cousins.
What disappoints is how so many Western scholars—whether out of naïveté, sycophancy, or a pragmatic desire for access only they can say—play along, praising Nechirvan’s “admirably pragmatic” message to the West. First, let us put to rest the notion that there is any coherent “road map.” There is scant mention outside Nechirvan’s vanity outlet Rudaw of any such speeches or their visions.
Certainly, Barzanis know how to say the right thing in front of the Western diplomats who travel to Erbil to do the “full Barzani,” meeting father Masoud Barzani, son Masrour, and Masrour’s cousin Nechirvan, before a lavish feast and a flight out to Baghdad, Istanbul, or Dubai. What the scholars miss in their paean to the president, however, is what Nechirvan says and does when they are not around. Where, for example, is analysis of Nechirvan’s remarks threatening to punish peaceful protestors demanding unpaid wages?
And where is the analysis of the crises that have beset the Kurdistan Region since the Masrour-Nechirvan duo officially took command four years ago? Yes, both Masrour and Nechirvan can blame Baghdad, but if Kurds no longer accept their leaders’ blanket castigation of Baghdad, why would American, British, and French scholars of Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan? A far more honest approach would be to analyze where Nechirvan fell short and where Baghdad truly is to blame. Are the Western scholars praising Nechirvan unaware that it was his decision to unilaterally export Iraqi Kurdistan’s oil—a move that ignited disputes with Baghdad and led both to a Paris arbitration court’s award in Baghdad’s favor and a suspension of oil sales through Turkey—that now decimates the Kurdish economy?
Nor is there any analysis about whether Nechirvan shares the blame for parliament’s suspension, unprecedented public discontent, or the deterioration of public services. Perhaps one of Nechrivan’s hagiographers might have asked why, with workers going unpaid, Nechirvan built a complex whose grounds are more than four times larger than the White House? Or why when drinking water is scarce in Erbil, Nechirvan’s complex has over ten wells? Nechirvan’s over-the-top public expenditure is symptomatic of a larger problem: As he and Masrour compete for prestige, each treats the public purse as a personal slush fund. They both blur the boundaries between public interests and private gain. If Nechirvan truly embodied the democratic, visionary, and economically liberal that hagiographic academics and think tankers paint, Iraqi Kurdistan would be a far different place today. Surely, no speech trumps a legacy of sixteen years as regional prime minister?
There is a reason why Nechirvan has hemorrhaged legitimacy. While Nechirvan’s sycophants say he is Endaziyari Awedani (“the Architect of Prosperity”), most Kurds now call him Endaziyari Kawlkari (“the Architect of Destruction”). It is this sentiment that Nechirvan cynically uses foreign scholars to counter.
It is astounding that scholars of Iraq and tenured professors do not recognize a pattern in which Iraqi politicians often call for new political deals in their speeches. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki did it. So did Haider Abadi and Mustafa al-Kadhimi. Even the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein did it. Do American, British, and French scholars or Turkish journalists really believe Nechirvan is different?
Contributors to the Road Map for Peace embarrass themselves in other ways. It is a misrepresentation to frame the Kurdistan Regional Government’s issues with Baghdad as primarily ethnic. Certainly, other Kurdish parties disagree. The heart of their disputes is constitutional, and the Barzanis have deliberately escalated many of these issues. Flippant remarks declaring, “Baghdad is bankrupt” aggravate the situation when both Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government needed to cooperate to resolve the financial crisis and pursue the war on terror.
For scholars to accept remuneration and/or free travel in exchange for contributions makes matters worse. It makes a mockery of pro forma think tank claims that they do not receive foreign money. Perhaps institutionally they do not, but if scholars do on an individual basis, that violates the spirit if not the letter of think tank claims. Cynicism is rife in Erbil precisely because the leadership often funds praise and encourages sycophancy. To then equate poorly articulated Kurdish statements as “strategic vision” is farcical.
The Barzanis have had their time. Cheap theatrics may assuage politicians’ egos, but they diminish those scholars and journalists who allow Kurdish politicians to use them. If any road maps are needed, they are a path to good governance and reform on one hand, and a process to restore stolen assets to the Kurdish people on the other.
Kamal Chomani is a non-resident fellow at the Kurdish Peace Institute.
Michael Rubin is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.