Massoud Barzani, the Kurdish president and commander of the Peshmerga, begins our interview with an anecdote. “Someone told me that one of your statesmen said on the evening following France’s victory over Germany in 1918, ‘Now I can die.’ That’s how I feel this morning.”
The advisers surrounding Barzani Tuesday morning in the Salahaddin presidential palace north of Erbil hasten to observe that the outcome of the referendum is just the beginning of the battle and that, at age 71, the president is much too important to his people to entertain such thoughts. But he is not deterred.
“I’ve been fighting for half a century. With my people I have been through mass killings, deportations, gassings. I remember times when we thought we were done for, headed for extermination. I remember times, as in 1991 after the first war against Saddam, when the democracies came to our rescue but left the dictatorship in place, thus casting us back into the shadows. During those decades of resistance, of hopes dashed and reborn, I never imagined that in my lifetime I would see the day when, at the end of an exemplary electoral process unmarred by any major incident or petty political dispute, my people would finally be able to come together and express to the world their desire to be democratic and free. That day came; and it is the happiest day of my life. It’s as if everything I’ve done and dreamed of, all of the struggles that we went through together, converged at that moment.”
Listening to him, I can’t help but think of all the small men who, right up to the last minute, speculated from their desks in embassies and foreign offices that Barzani would agree to a delay. I think of the deal that U.S. Sec. of State Rex Tillerson offered him five days before the vote. I had access to the draft. In a way, it was a good deal, which, in exchange for postponing Barzani’s dream, would have brought him much praise, massive amounts of financial assistance, and an American guarantee. But it didn’t take into account the invincible pride of the old lion of Kurdistan. The deal showed no understanding of the core idea that haunts him, an idea that gives meaning, not only to his own life, but to his people’s destiny. As if reading my thoughts, he continues:
“You have to understand. My preoccupation for weeks, as I have been pressed from all sides to back away from the referendum, was to be able, when my time comes, to look the people who elected me directly in the eye. And I’m not talking only of the living, but also of those who gave their lives to defend the Kurdish cause. At my last public meeting, this past Thursday, at Hariri Stadium in Erbil, I had only one obsession: not to be embarrassed to stand before them.”
I jump in again, thinking about those who suspected Barzani of organizing the referendum so as to extend his time in office. I remind him of one of the last times we saw each other. It was on the front lines the evening before his offensive against the Islamic State in Sinjar. On that occasion, this pro-western, pro-American, pro-Israel liberal told me that his model was North Vietnamese General Giáp. Hadn’t there come a time when Giáp had to turn himself in to Ho Chi Minh, I asked, a time when the strategist had to become the builder of an emerging nation—just the sort of nation that Kurdistan had become on Tuesday?
“No,” he insisted, verging on impatience. “The first thing I did last night after the last polling station closed in the remotest village in the Barzan mountains was to collect my thoughts on the grave of Mustafa Barzani, my father and the father of the Kurdish nation. Don’t forget what I told you on the battlefield in Sinjar. All of my life I have been a member of the Peshmerga, just as he was. And being part of the Peshmerga always seemed to me greater than being president. I have not changed my mind. So, taking the time to explain to our neighbors the significance of our peaceful referendum—yes, fine. But Ho Chi Minh, no. Honestly, no. The Kurdish nation needs a generation of young leaders.”
His look hardened when he mentioned the “neighbors”—Turkey, Iran, and Iraq—whose warnings and saber-rattling have increased and proliferated in the hours since the vote.
“We have committed no crime. We have violated neither Iraqi federal law nor the charter of the United Nations. And I repeatedly emphasized, right up to the day of the vote, that this was not about proclaiming a hasty or unilateral independence but rather about opening a frank negotiation with Baghdad that will take as long as it takes. So it’s not hard to understand why, when our neighbors respond as they have, when they react to our vote with threats and blackmail, we can only conclude that we were right to be wary and, after so many centuries of betrayal, to consider taking our future into our own hands.”
I worry out loud about the seriousness of those threats, drawing his attention to the tragic geography that landlocks his country, which is both old and young. I mention Bosnia under the Serbian blockade. The assault on Israel immediately following its founding. Another Massoud, the Afghan rebel leader, besieged in Panjshir.
“All in good time.”
Fala Mustafa, Barzani’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, who is acting as an improvised translator and has a knack, as many Kurdish leaders do, for speaking American with an Oxford accent, puts it another way: “Don’t meet trouble half way.”
Throughout this conversation, I sense Barzani’s determination to counter with unshakeable calm the feverishness of the Baghdad–Ankara–Tehran trio, who don’t let a day go by without announcing a new reprisal.
“All in good time, like I say. The ramping up has just begun. And I hope with all my heart that they won’t carry it through. But if they do …”
Barzani seems to be weighing his words.
“If they do—if they were really to try to smother us, to close our airports or cut our trade links, then I’ll tell you: We’ve seen others like them. We’ve been tortured, gunned down, displaced. Years ago in the mountains and just weeks ago on the thousand-kilometer front that we almost single-handedly held against the Islamic State, we paid a high price—very high—for our love of freedom. So, believe me, no hostile measure, no collective punishment, could be harsher than what we’ve already endured. And another thing…”
He turned toward his companions as if he were reviewing them.
“Burned into the memory of every one of us is first-hand knowledge of the worst that man can do to man. We are all well aware of that. And that time is over. Never again we will allow ourselves to be treated thus. No longer will anyone attack our dignity with impunity. And as for the international community …”
This time he’s looking at me, a look of defiance in his eye.
“Suppose our neighbors follow through with their unreasonable plans. Will the international community stand by and watch us be strangled? Will they just take in the show, as they did when we were gassed? Remember the Fazlya incident last year, at the outset of the battle of Mosul. You were there, weren’t you?”
Yes, indeed, I was there with my film crew. A Peshmerga unit was ambushed. Several hours of fierce combat ensued. Despite repeated appeals by the commander of the column and in violation of the Coalition’s rules of engagement, no air support was provided. That night, in his bivouac in the Zartik mountains, the president seethed with rage.
“The Coalition had made a promise, but that day it did not keep its promise. At the time, the Peshmerga was on everyone’s lips. The courage of the Peshmerga. The sacrifice of the Peshmerga. But when the time came to support the Peshmerga, there was no one to be seen. To this day, I have not received an explanation.”
Recalling that incident seems to have brought back the wrath he felt at the time. But he quickly recovers his equanimity.
“I cannot say this often enough: We seek negotiation and dialogue. We are ready to repeat, over and over, that the independence we seek is for the Kurds of Iraq; we have no intention of getting involved in the affairs of neighboring countries. I emphasized this to President Macron when he called me last week upon his return from New York. He was amicable. He understood.”
And now I know that Emmanuel Macron has offered France’s services as a mediator. I also know that the president told Massoud Barzani that he was prepared to invite him to Paris without delay to meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi. Barzani’s face brightened.
“I have confidence in President Macron and his leadership. Our countries have a special relationship, you know. Tell your president that all Kurds feel to a degree like children of a great Frenchwoman, Danielle Mitterrand. I am honored to accept his invitation. I can be there as early as tomorrow. I hope that the same is true of Mr. Abadi.”