Will Massoud Barzani declare independence?
By Ofra Bengio
The Jerusalem Post
the 2003 war the Kurds have become the US ally and
the most credible partner in post-Saddam Iraq
Prof. Ofra Bengio is senior research associate at
the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University. She
is the author of the forthcoming The Kurds of Iraq:
Building a State within a State and editor of the
monthly newsletter Tzomet Hamizrah Hatichon. Photo:
Read more by the Author
April 23, 2012
Massoud Barzani, president of Kurdistan Regional
Government (KRG), is in the habit of dangling from
time to time the idea of independence for Kurdistan.
For example in an interview with Judith Miller in
2006 he insisted: “Having an independent state is
the natural legitimate right of our people.”
In another interview with the BBC in January 2012 he
stated: “I like the Kurdistan Region to evolve day
by day. But what I really wish is to see an
The latest such example was during the celebrations
of Newroz, the Kurdish new year.
In his speech on March 21, 2012, he threatened by
implication to declare independence for the Kurdish
region if the political deadlock in Iraq continued.
He further insinuated that the oil-rich Kirkuk had
to be incorporated into a future independent
What is one to make of these declarations? Are they
merely empty talks as his critics say, or trial
balloons intended to prepare the ground for such an
eventuality? In approaching the issue of
independence Barzani is on a horn of a dilemma. On
the one hand it seems that the Kurds are facing the
best window of opportunity for such a move.
On the other hand, the formidable obstacles also
seem to have gathered momentum.
The positive incentives have to do not only with the
Arab Spring and the geopolitical changes that are
taking place in the region as a result but also with
the international community which appears more
forthcoming regarding the modification of old maps
and the formation of new states. This trend, which
started in the 1990s with the establishment of new
states on the debris of the Soviet Union, found its
expression lately with the declarations of
independence by South Sudan, Palestine and Azawad in
Barzani has also to reckon with pressure put to bear
on him by the Kurdish people with regard to
An informal referendum held in early 2005 showed
that 95% of Kurds opted for independence.
However, Barzani’s critics blame him of missing
earlier opportunities such as in 2003, of caring
only for his post and the accumulation of riches and
of lacking the courage to take such a step. Indeed,
a possible internal Kurdish crisis is looming in the
horizon if such demands are not fulfilled.
The ongoing crisis between the KRG and Baghdad could
provide another incentive or excuse for such a move.
Barzani’s accusations that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki
is leading Iraq to another dictatorship were
accompanied by threats that if the political
deadlock in Baghdad continued, Barzani would revert
to the Kurdish people to ask their views on the next
steps, namely declaring independence.
Interestingly, Ankara has kept its silence regarding
such reports. Moreover, according to a report in the
London-based Al-Hayat report, David Petraeus,
director of the Central Intelligence Agency, has
asked Ankara to support such a Kurdish move. Though
this report seems far-fetched its very circulation
Against this there are some daunting obstacles
including the Kurds’ commitment in the Iraqi
constitution to a federal state, the economic and
political dependence on Baghdad, and the fear of
antagonizing the neighboring states, especially
Turkey which has become the KRG’s lifeline to the
outside world and its most important economic and
Another very important concern is the American
Since the 2003 war the Kurds have become the US ally
and the most credible partner in post-Saddam Iraq.
But the maximum the American administration can
accept at this stage is a viable federation in Iraq
in which the Kurds would contribute to the stability
of the state rather than open a Pandora’s box of
Barzani’s strategy for solving such dilemmas is what
one may call “creeping independence,” which means
preparing the infrastructure on all possible levels
for such eventuality and waiting for the opportune
time for the declaration. This strategy was summed
up lately by Barzani’s son Masrour, director of
intelligence and security in the KRG, who in a way
expressed the feelings of Kurdish youth:
“Establishing a Kurdish state is a natural right.
The question is not whether or not we should declare
the Kurdish state, it is rather how we can protect
it. The first prerequisite is that our nation should
be prepared to disregard its party and individual
interests and to fight for their nation.
Whenever our people and the international conditions
are ready, then it is a proper time to declare it.
However, I believe better conditions and a brighter
horizon have emerged for this.”
Examining the situation on the ground one can only
repeat what every observer who visited the area
testified to: Kurdistan has all the trappings of a
state. In fact, in certain areas it seems even much
more cohesive and developed than the Palestinian
Authority or South Sudan.
On the symbolical level the most glaring
manifestations are the Kurdish flag, the anthem, the
use of the Kurdish language and discussions of the
especially with regard to the traumas of the
chemical weapons and the genocide meted out to them
by Saddam. On the practical level one should mention
the Kurdish independent institutions such as the
presidency, the parliament, the constitution and the
army, (the Peshmerga); the flourishing economy; and
the diplomatic ventures such as Kurdish
representatives in foreign countries who function
autonomously of the Iraqi missions.
Another unique situation is that there exist real
borders between the Kurdish and Arab parts of the
An important boost to the position of Kurdistan as
an autonomous region was given by Masud Barzani’s
weeklong visit to the US and his meeting with
President Barack Obama, American officials, the
business community and the media.
Indeed, the fact that Obama received him alone and
not as part of an Iraqi delegation significantly
boosted Barzani’s stature as a Kurdish national
leader. It is also a far cry from the
American-Kurdish relationship of only a decade ago
when such a visit was conducted secretly and the
Kurdish case as a whole was quite subdued in the US.
So the question now is not if the Kurds of Iraq
declare independence but when. It seems that the
timing depends mainly on relations with Baghdad.
If these continue to deteriorate, the Kurds might
use this as an excuse to bolster their independent
status. Also, further deterioration of relations
between Turkey and its neighbors, Iran Syria and
Iraq might encourage Ankara to turn a blind eye to
such a Kurdish move. Finally, it seems that the
younger generation is more likely to take such a
bold step. In such scenarios the Kurds of Iraq might
make the extra mile within years but not
The writer is a professor at the Moshe Dayan
Center for Middle East and African Studies. She is
the author of the recently published book The Kurds
of Iraq: Building a State within a State.
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