Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani announced his resignation Sunday after the biggest gamble of his 12 years as president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) not only failed, but utterly backfired as territorial reversals reduced KRG power to its weakest position in decades. Though his push for an independence referendum had overwhelming support among Iraq's Kurds, and with even the encouragement of some external allies, the decisive military response by the Iraqi national government resulted in rapid forced handover of Kurdish-held oil rich areas and a return to pre-2014 borders, prior to the blitz by ISIS which aided Kurdish political expansion. Barzani will step down effective November 1.
And now the future of the KRG is itself under threat as reports of inter-Kurdish fighting emerged Sunday night. Multiple international reports characterized Barzani's speech as "bitter" and it further appears that violence erupted during or after his televised speech before parliament. During the speech Barzani proclaimed that, "three million votes for Kurdistan independence created history and cannot be erased" while also denouncing rivals who abandoned the fight for Kirkuk as committing "high treason."
His supporters, angry at what is essentially a forced resignation after rival Kurdish factions failed to oppose Iraqi national forces as they advanced in Kirkuk and other areas earlier this month, reportedly stormed parliament brandishing knives sticks, and guns. There are also unverified reports emerging that opposition party members were attacked during the chaos, as well as arson attacks on opposition offices in various parts of Erbil.
According to a statement described as an "urgent message" to the international community from the Speaker of Kurdistan Parliament, Yousif Mohammed Sadiq, we could be witnessing the start of a broader breakdown in security in Erbil: "We are gravely concerned about the attack on Kurdistan Parliament Building today by a number of rioters with utter disregard for all human values and at the encouragement of a political party without any attempt by the security forces to prevent them."
Barzani supporters storm Iraqi Kurdish parliament as he announces his resignation. There were reports of wounded among Erbil opposition politicians and some media staff on Sunday.
As Barzani steps down, chaos in Kurdistan parliament as a KDP mob attack opposition media by sticks, knife, may attack opposition MPs too. pic.twitter.com/Umt2f4wbwB
Barzani supporters blame the recent disastrous KRG territorial losses on the Kurdish opposition party PUK, whose fighters generally allowed the previous advance of Iraqi forces after Baghdad ordered the pacification of Kirkuk city. The PUK has admitted that it reached agreement with the Iraqi military even as fighters representing Barzani's Kuristan Democratic Party (KDP) continued to battle. For this reason the KDP Peshmerga accused PUK factions which refused to fight of “plotting” against the Kurds and committing “a great and historic treason.”
For the Kurds, the non-existent to lukewarm support for the referendum among international powers was the latest (and perhaps greatest) in a long list of historic betrayals. According to Kamal Alam, a Middle East analyst for the Royal United Services Institute the Kurds "overstretched and one cannot help but feel sorry for them" as they were effective fighters against ISIS after the Iraqi army all but disappeared from some parts of the country.
Alam told BBC World Service radio in an interview late last week, "But they were warned not to do this referendum by both Baghdad and Turkey and they were hoping to capitalize on the disagreements between Ankara and Baghdad, but it seems the referendum brought both the two capitals together to work against Kurdish dominance." And he added "they thought that a hundred year wrong which had been done to them would be corrected and they were perhaps given some assurances in some Western capitals that this time we won't let you down – you saw loads of Western officials say it and write about it… they have been let down again and now they'll have to just stay with what they have."
As the Iraqi Kurdish independence project has now resulted in failure, it will be interesting to see how this impacts developments in Syrian Kurdish areas across the Iraqi and Turkish borders – no doubt the example of Iraq has now provided further incentive for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF, whose core component is the Kurdish YPG) to go to the negotiating table with Syria and Russia, in the hope of retaining some kind of autonomous or federalized union with Damascus, as opposed to all-out war, which would result in being squeezed by Turkey from the north and Damascus from the south.