The assassination of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in a Jan. 3 drone strike carried out by the United States sent shock waves throughout the region. Those who argued that Tehran would take its time to retaliate proved wrong. On the night of Jan. 8, Iran launched more than a dozen missiles on Iraqi bases housing US forces. Several struck the Ain al-Assad base west of Baghdad. Several others landed in an open field near an air base in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. Nobody was killed.
The attack was seen, however, as a clear message from Tehran about the potential punishment Iraqis would face if they pursue their relations with the United States. Baghdad’s immediate reaction already had been to ask US forces to leave. Iraq’s caretaker prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, joined the chorus of Shiite Iraqis saying it was time for the Americans to depart. Meanwhile, Iraq’s Kurds see US forces as protection as much against the Islamic State as they do against Baghdad and Iran and other potential foes.
The Kurds are in a bind as they face pressure from Tehran and Washington to pick sides. But while Baghdad has played lip service to Iran, the central government is just as loathe as the Kurds to get caught in the middle.
Abdul Mahdi was in Erbil last week to enlist Kurdish support for his tottering government, which has been hit by a wave of massive street protests followed by the deaths of Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units who was also targeted in the drone attack. Abdul Mahdi met with Nechirvan Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), who took the lead role in recent negotiations with Baghdad to resolve a long-running dispute over sharing revenues from oil and the Iraqi budget. Barzani has also been invited to Washington and Tehran.
Al-Monitor sat down with him today at his office in the sprawling Barzani family compound atop a mountain outside Erbil known as Sari Rash to discuss the impact of Soleimani’s death and other regional developments affecting the Iraqi Kurds.
The following is the transcript of the interview, lightly edited for clarity.
Al-Monitor: It’s been a pretty explosive start to the new year with the killing of IRGC commander Qasem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in a US drone strike. How has this event affected the balance of power in Iraq in general and in Iraqi Kurdistan in particular? The Iraqi parliament has called on the government to kick out US troops from Iraq. Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi asked the US to formulate a mechanism for their withdrawal. What happens if US troops do leave and then Washington asks the KRG to redeploy here?
Barzani: This event triggered a flood of emotions in Iraq and the United States. The initial reaction and response from all sides was informed by these emotions. And that includes the reaction of the Iraqi parliament and the Iraqi prime minister. By the same token, the response from Washington to the effect that US troops will remain in Iraq regardless of what the parliament or government has to say and the like was also in my view articulated in the heat of the moment. The priority all around should be for emotions to be set aside and for reason to prevail. We now need to contain the situation, to bring it under control.
Our view is that the decision taken by the Iraqi parliament was not a good one and the Kurds and the Sunnis did not take part in that decision. Moreover, it set a bad precedent. The decision was taken by the Shia bloc without consulting either of the key components of this country, the Kurds or the Sunni [Arabs]. It was a very critical step that was taken without seeking consensus and as such violates the spirit of the Iraqi Constitution. This is not good for Iraq, either now or for the future.
Al-Monitor: Why did you abstain from the vote?
Barzani: The question that first needs to be addressed is the following: Why are US troops here to begin with? They are here upon the invitation in 2014 of the Iraqi government and in consultation with the United Nations Security Council when the Islamic State was on the outskirts of Baghdad. The second: Does the current situation in Iraq justify the withdrawal of US and coalition forces given their mission, which is to help defeat the Islamic State? As far as we, the KRG, is concerned the answer is plainly “No.” All the intelligence indicates that the Islamic State has regrouped itself and that they are carrying out attacks against Iraqi targets on a daily basis. Hence, it’s as much in the interest of Iraqi Kurdistan as it is for the whole of Iraq that US forces remain for the time being.
Al-Monitor: But it seems the government in Baghdad is under immense pressure from Iran to get the American forces out. At the same time President [Donald] Trump is pushing the Europeans to scotch the nuclear deal with Iran. So things could escalate again and where does that leave the KRG?
Barzani: During Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s visit here a few days ago, the impression we got was that he was looking to resolve this issue through dialogue rather than confrontation. The idea would be to come up with a new formula, reconfiguration if you will, for the future presence of US and coalition forces in Iraq.
Al-Monitor: Meaning they would stay?
Barzani: Yes. We strongly believe the presence of US and coalition forces is a must for all of Iraq.
Al-Monitor: And the Iraqi prime minister agrees with that?
Barzani: Yes. He is concerned by the situation, obviously, but he is a pragmatic man and he is looking to reformulate, redefine the future presence of these forces in Iraq. I don’t think relations between Iraq and the United States should be legislated via the media. This is unhelpful.
Al-Monitor: But the Iraqi prime minister himself made it clear early on that he believed US forces should leave. Do you think he was acting under pressure from Iran?
Barzani: I think as the prime minister of Iraq he is entitled to his grievances and the fact that such a major operation was conducted on Iraqi soil near the airport without his knowledge was bound to trigger a negative reaction from Baghdad.
Al-Monitor: Are you saying that neither he nor any member of the Iraqi government, or the KRG had prior knowledge of this operation?
Barzani: That is what I am saying. No knowledge. No cooperation. I don’t think so. What is best now is for a serious engagement and dialogue between Iraq and the United States on the future format for US deployment. It should be low profile. No hand grenades lobbed via the media.
Al-Monitor: But clearly Iran will be pulling Baghdad in the opposite direction. What is your assessment of Iran’s retaliatory missile attack on the Americans, which also targeted Erbil? Was there a message there for the Iraqi Kurds as well?
Barzani: The Iraqi leadership has to hold the interests, the security and the stability of the country, of the Iraqi people, above all else. The launching of the missiles was a very clear message to everybody that Iran has the will and the capacity to strike inside any part of Iraq.
Al-Monitor: But we also heard some diplomatic shots fired with the Iranian consul general in Erbil complaining that the KRG response to the killing of Qasem Soleimani was inadequate. They obviously have their expectations from you but then so do the Americans. They were unhappy with the statement you put out following the attack on the embassy in Baghdad. You must be feeling pretty squeezed.
Barzani: In Kurdistan we do not wish Iraq to become a battleground where Iran and the United States settle their scores. Iraq’s relations with the United States are very important. But Iran is our longstanding neighbor. Since assuming office Prime Minister Mahdi has set out to avoid being dragged into the conflict between Iran and the United States.
Al-Monitor: But he has.
Al-Monitor: Are you scared of Iran?
Barzani: No, we are not scared of Iran, but we respect Iran.
Al-Monitor: When Vice President Mike Pence came here in November, he conveyed an invitation to you from President Trump for a meeting at the White House. My understanding was that you were expecting to travel to Washington either in December or January. What happened? Has the invitation somehow become contingent on you taking sides with Washington against Tehran? Are there strings attached?
Barzani: No. There is a standing invitation but no date has been fixed yet. The invitation was extended before any of this happened [the Soleimani killing as well as Abdul Mahdi’s Nov. 29 resignation]. The United States sees [us] as part of Iraq and they deal with us as such.
Al-Monitor: True, but there was a lot of speculation that the reason you were invited was to calm congressional fury over Trump’s decision to pull US troops out of the path of Turkish forces when they attacked the Syrian Kurds in October. They wanted to invite the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces [SDF] commander Mazlum Kobane but Turkey pushed back so fiercely, you emerged as a consensus figure.
Barzani: Well, everybody looks out for their own interests. Their [US] interests might have called for that and we have our own interests.
Al-Monitor: So, will you be seeing President Trump in Davos?
Barzani: I have to ask my foreign minister. It’s not clear if he [Trump] is even coming to Davos but I will be seeing Vice President Pence in Davos.
Al-Monitor: Would you say the aftermath of Qasem Soleimani’s death has forced Washington to reevaluate its relations with the KRG and elevated your importance as a strategic partner?
Barzani: The KRG with its legal and constitutional status has its own singular importance within the Iraqi equation. But as things currently stand the US policy on Iraq is a united Iraq, a one Iraq policy.
Al-Monitor: Is that your policy as well?
Al-Monitor: OK. But do you see yourself as a potential mediator between Washington and Baghdad?
Barzani: Sure. We do and we will fulfill our role in that respect. And our view is that it’s really in Iraq’s interests that we do so and that relations between Washington and Baghdad remain stable.
Al-Monitor: How about mediating between Washington and Tehran?
Barzani: We are prepared to do our utmost within our humble means to contribute to stability and peace in this region.
Al-Monitor: Are you going to Tehran any time soon?
Barzani: I have a standing invitation. But no date has been set yet.
Al-Monitor: Moving on to Russia’s role in this region. President Putin is extraordinarily active, in Syria, now in Libya. What role is there for Russia in Iraq?
Barzani: It’s clear that Russia has an important role in this region. We see it in Syria, in Libya. And it has has good relations with Iraq.
Barzani: That’s it.
Al-Monitor: The last time we met, back in March last year, you said the SDF should make a deal with the Syrian regime as soon as possible. The SDF has been talking to the Syrian government but the Syrian government is showing absolutely no signs of wanting to give the Kurds anything in terms of political rights, a political status with constitutional guarantees. What is your advice to them now?
Barzani: It’s still the same.
Al-Monitor: So they should agree to full capitulation?
Barzani: As a matter of principle we believe that the question of the Kurds in Syria should be resolved within the boundaries of Syria. And yes, of course I believe the regime in Damascus should be more forthcoming than it is now. The Kurds of Syria are part of Syria. Unfortunately, the Baath mentality is a block. The Russians can make a difference, however. When I met [Russian Foreign Minister Sergey] Lavrov a while back, I specifically asked him to help advance a deal between the Kurds and the regime. I believe that President Putin should put more effort into this.
Al-Monitor: But at the same time we see the Russians engaged with the Turks in ways that have been working in direct opposition to Kurdish interests in Syria.
Barzani: Our advice in the past, present and in the future is for the Syrian Kurds to find a way to reach an agreement with the regime. I also told them repeatedly to cut their ties with the PKK [Kurdistan Workers Party] in Qandil.
Al-Monitor: But is that even possible?
Barzani: I always said they did everything to provoke Turkey. Putting up PKK flags and huge portraits of [imprisoned PKK leader] Abdullah Ocalan immediately on the Turkish border.
Al-Monitor: But before Oct. 9, when Turkey launched its invasion in northeast Syria, the SDF was making many concessions to Turkey, agreeing to joint Turkish-US patrols and pulling back forces from the border. That hardly qualifies as “provoking.” Quite the opposite.
Barzani: Well, it was probably too late by then. We had been telling them for years to disassociate themselves from the PKK and try to understand Turkey’s concerns so as to avert this result we have today.
Al-Monitor: What does cutting links with Qandil actually mean? Many of these people currently running the Syrian Kurdish administration were part of that movement and view Ocalan as their symbolic leader.
Barzani: It’s a well-established fact that they were taking all their orders from the PKK.
Al-Monitor: Are they still?
Barzani: Yes, but to a lesser extent. In any case, what they need to do is to convince Turkey and the international community that they are not part of the PKK’s broader agenda. And if this proves impossible I see little chance of the situation getting any better.
Al-Monitor: So, what of your own relations with Turkey? How have they been affected by recent events?
Barzani: Our relations with Turkey have always been important. Our relations with Turkey are good. The KRG prime minister [Masrour Barzani] had a very good meeting with [Turkish] President [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan. We will continue on this path.
Al-Monitor: But you said you don’t want Iraq to be a battleground for the United States and Iran. But Iraqi Kurdistan is already a battleground for Turkey and the PKK. Any hope for a resumption of the peace process between Turkey and its Kurds?
Barzani: We can’t allow Iraqi Kurdistan to become a launching pad for attacks against any of our neighbors. In the final analysis this problem in Turkey has to be resolved through peaceful means. Whenever I meet with Turkish officials I remind them of this, that this problem needs to be solved through dialogue, not military means. This is in the interest of both sides.
Al-Monitor: And that means talking to the PKK and to Ocalan?
Barzani: Yes, to the PKK, to Ocalan.
Al-Monitor: But the Turkish government and President Erdogan seem to not have any interest in resuming dialogue with the PKK or Ocalan. Quite the opposite. Do you see a role for the imprisoned pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party [HDP] former co-chair Selahattin Demirtas in helping resume peace talks?
Barzani: I definitely do and I definitely believe that he should be freed from prison and allowed to play this role. He should be free.
Al-Monitor: Quite a few Syrian and Turkish Kurds seem to believe that the Iraqi Kurdish leadership fails to fully grasp that if the autonomy project in Rojava or Syrian Kurdistan fails, that Iraqi Kurdistan will in their words “be next.” That Turkey and Iran will go after Iraqi Kurdistan next and destroy your autonomy. And that their fierce reaction to the 2017 Kurdistan independence referendum was an unequivocal portent of this. Do you agree with this take?
Barzani: It’s a bit of an apples and oranges situation. The Kurdistan Region of Iraq has a legal, constitutional status within Iraq. Within Iraq and internationally this is a recognized fact. Therefore in this regard it makes no sense to draw parallels between Iraqi Kurdistan and Rojava. For us in Iraqi Kurdistan, whenever we sense an opportunity to help our brothers and sisters in Rojava and fellow Kurds elsewhere resolve their problems peacefully within the countries they live in, we are always happy to do so. I would also like to take this opportunity to hail my brothers and sisters in Rojava for their great sacrifices on the front line in the war against the Islamic state, for their bravery and their dedication. The high number of casualties they took was not just to defend themselves and Syria but to defend humanity and for that we owe them big thanks.
Al-Monitor: Do you, therefore, believe, as the SDF does, that they should be rewarded and recognized for their deeds and that the Kurds in Syria deserve to be accorded a formal status as full and equal partners in a new Syria?
Barzani: Definitely. Of course they should be. There should be constitutional protection of their rights all within the framework of a united Syria. They should be equal citizens and to be able to express themselves freely as Kurds.
Al-Monitor: Before the Soleimani affair you had aired confidence about reaching a deal with Baghdad on the budget, revenue sharing, oil, etc. Has it all been upended by the prime minister’s resignation plus Soleimani’s death? Are you concerned that Iran may pressure Baghdad to stop paying salaries to the KRG once again by way of increasing pressure on you?
Barzani: After long discussions and many journeys to Baghdad we had indeed reached an agreement. We had almost concluded the deal towards the end of September. We were supposed to hand over 250,000 barrels of oil to SOMO [Iraq’s national oil company] at [export terminals in Turkey’s Mediterranean port of] Ceyhan. They would market it and the revenue would go to the Iraqi treasury from which the KRG would get its share.
Al-Monitor: So what would happen to Turkey’s share?
Barzani: They have nothing to do with it. So what would happen basically is that we have to pay transit fees to the Turkish side and this is Iraqi oil, no matter where it’s extracted. The remaining 200,000 barrels are ours and that covers payment to the oil companies for their services and some of our debts to them. But this deal is now in limbo and this uncertainty is obviously not good. That said, as you mentioned, since March of last year, a portion of public workers’ salaries has been paid by the central government in Baghdad on a regular basis. Around 55%. We are talking about $380 million a month. That’s it. It doesn’t cover all the salaries. Our total outlay for government workers’ salaries, social security is $700 million a month; 1.2 million people receive government salaries, of which 700,000 are directly employed by the government, the peshmerga, civil servants, etc. As for your question about Iranian pressure, I don’t think Iran will interfere because we are all Iraqis. The arrangement that was struck was a national one that was reached after a lot of discussions.
Al-Monitor: How do you rate the performance of the new [KRG] prime minister and his Cabinet? And he is your paternal cousin, so perhaps you may not be too impartial, but try.
Barzani: If you look at the performance of the previous government we were often in crisis management mode, with the budget dispute with Baghdad, then the Islamic State. A lot good was achieved in the past 10 years but mistakes were made as well. The new government has gotten off on a sounder footing with a better relationship with Baghdad and the territorial defeat of the Islamic State. It has vigorously embraced the reform process and implementing reforms and is trying to do better. And I think the prime minister is doing a good job. He has struck a good balance in the Cabinet. Honestly, he is doing a good job.
Al-Monitor: But there is still no oil minister.
Barzani: We will have one soon. Don’t worry.
Barzani: I honestly don’t know but for now the prime minister is doubling up as oil minister.
Al-Monitor: Final question. One of the big challenges often mentioned by your party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, is the lack of leadership in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan [PUK] with whom you share power. Who is in charge of the PUK?
Barzani: They just had a party congress and it was a successful one despite all the speculation. They have set up a committee to solve all their internal issues. Until now it remains unclear who will actually head the party.
Barzani: I think Iraqi President Barham Salih.