Barzani’s tribal tactics, insecurity backfiring on international stage / Michael Rubin

It has been a bad month for Iraqi Kurdistan. First, the International Court of Arbitration of the International Chamber of Commerce found against Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani’s nephew to the tune of $1.65 billion.

A Paris arbitration court then found in favor of Iraq in a multibillion-dollar ruling against Turkey leading to a freeze on most of the Kurdistan Region’s oil exports through the country. Iraqi lawyers told me one reason for the verdict was Masoud’s unwillingness to submit his own business contracts to the arbitration judges.
For Masoud’s eldest son Masrour Barzani, the finding is worse. Masrour faces a lawsuit in the United States for falsely alleging an affair between American journalist Zack Kopplin and Shnyar Anwar Hassan, a Kurdish woman married to Sarkawt Shamsulddin, an opposition parliamentarian and frequent Barzani critic. Kopplin and Hassan never met, but Masrour apparently sought both to deflect attention from and delegitimize Kopplin’s reporting. In conservative Kurdish society, such allegations are serious: Reputations matter and honor crimes are real. In US court, Masrour’s defense in rests in part on a claim of sovereign immunity. By rejecting Barzani’s argument in Paris that his Kurdish authority was part of the Iraqi government, it essentially undermined his ability to claim sovereign immunity elsewhere.
The personal slander and libel in which Masrour and Masoud engage against Hassan is the rule rather than exception. I know Barzani tactics well. Twelve years ago, I exposed Masrour as the owner of an $11 million mansion in McLean, Virginia. I subsequently wrote a chapter on Kurdistan Regional Government corruption for the Routledge Handbook on the Kurds. Because I neither have family in Iraqi Kurdistan nor do I do business, the Barzanis have no leverage over me, so they turned to Plan B: spreading rumors about me in Iraqi Kurdish chatrooms and Barzani-run newspapers.
Prior to his 2020 death, former Kirkuk governor Najmaldin Karim admitted that he, Barzani’s uncle and former Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, and Fadhil Mirani, the politburo secretary of Barzani’s political party, crafted tales to discredit me. It was the type of slander common in Iraq dating back to the Baath Party when, the Fedayeen Saddam beheaded women they said were prostitutes; in reality, they were PhDs and medical doctors married to suspected critics.
What works in tribal societies does not work on the international stage. Rather, it hemorrhages the Kurdish government’s credibility. Today, however, Masrour now doubles down. In the past week, Masrour has launched a public offensive against the US Consul-General in Erbil to counter criticisms in the State Department’s annual human rights report.  A more mature leader might address those concerns or point out factual errors, but Masrour instead accused the consulate of promoting homosexuality and perversion. That Masrour simultaneously expects the United States to continue funding his Peshmerga militia salaries to the tune of almost quarter billion dollars a year and arrests journalists for meeting with the consul-general is bipolar.
Masrour’s rule is unstable. Kurds (including Barzani family members) say Masrour compounds the problem by isolating his father Masoud in his mountaintop palace. There, they present him with cherry picked news and social media reports to channel his anger against both foreigners and any Kurd whom Masrour sees as potential competitors. Rather than be an elder statesman who might moderate and mature his son, Masoud is today their captive, albeit in a gilded prison.
Iraqi Kurdistan-based expatriate writer Winthrop Rodgers is correct: Iraqi Kurdistan’s house of cards is collapsing. The region is exhibit A in why the US must base its policy on strengthening systems rather than individual leaders. Perhaps wiser leaders might salvage what Iraqi Kurds have achieved, but Masoud and Masrour’s cheap homophobia, social shaming, and deflection reaffirm they are not up to the task. Their provincial mindset makes the entire family appear foolish on the world stage.
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