The competitive cousins: Nechirvan Barzani (left) and Masrour Barzani.
The head of Iraqi Kurdistan’s most powerful political party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, resigned from his job as the most powerful man in the semi-autonomous northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan in October last year. Massoud Barzani’s resignation from the post of president came after the ill-fated referendum on Kurdish independence, that Barzani had strongly pushed for.
Since then, it has become increasingly clear that there is rivalry between those who would claim his position atop the party he once led, the KDP. By law all the powers of the Kurdish presidency should have passed to the prime minister, a job held by Nechirvan Barzani, Massoud’s nephew. But in practice this is proving difficult because of the fact that the senior Barzani’s son, Masrour Barzani, controls other key institutions in Iraqi Kurdistan, including those related to security, and often seems to be opposed to Nechirvan’s stances.
It’s an unusual state for the KDP to be in. Up until now the party has always appeared outwardly cohesive, a real family affair – Massoud got his job as party leader from his own father, Mustafa Barzani. And that is in stark contrast to other parties in Iraqi Kurdistan, such as the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, where senior members have split and formed new parties. Of course, internal conflicts between senior party members have always been possible but since the referendum, the hidden rivalry in the younger generation has been more apparent.
Both men wield a lot of influence inside and outside the KDP and it is hard to say which one is more powerful. The cousins are clearly both interested as being seen as Massoud’s successor.
It is in the area of military power and security information that Masrour may have an edge on Nechirvan.
As prime minister, Nechirvan heads the regional government in Iraqi Kurdistan and he is also the deputy head of the KDP. Meanwhile Masrour is head of the Kurdistan Region Security Council and a senior member of the KDP.
Nechirvan owns the Rudaw media organisation, Iraqi Kurdistan’s biggest TV channel, as well as a weekly newspaper and a cultural institution. Masrour owns the relative newcomer, Kurdistan 24, another TV channel, and a weekly newspaper as well as other media and cultural organizations.
Nechirvan also founded and funds the University of Kurdistan in Erbil while Masrour does the same with the 2014-founded American University of Dohuk. Nechirvan is behind the charity, the Rwanga Foundation, and Masrour, the Barzani Charity Foundation.
It is in the area of military power and security information that Masrour may have an edge on Nechirvan. He heads the military police in the KDP’s zones of influence as well as the intelligence services known as the Asayesh and many of the brigades of regular military, known as the Peshmerga. Nechirvan has power over a number of the ordinary military brigades through his brother, senior military commander Rawan Idris Barzani.
“Nechirvan and Masrour are very different in terms of their political vision and style,” explains Abdulla Hawez, a Chevening scholar of Middle Eastern Studies at King's College in London and a journalist. “That has to lead to an increase in conflict between the two. And the presence of all the different media, educational, cultural and business organisations, which each of them owns separately, does begin to suggest two different wings inside the KDP.”
Masrour’s wing is more traditional, longer-established and takes a harder line in terms of policies. It is also more inclined toward military action and it is supported by the majority of long time KDP members, Hawez notes. Meanwhile Nechirvan’s wing is more liberal, more flexible and open to negotiations, as well as being closer to Turkey. It tends to be more concerned about oil exporting and trade.
Nechirvan Barzani (at top of couch) meets Iraqi PM Haider al-Abadi.
The cousins even had different points of view about the referendum on independence that precipitated so many of the problems Iraqi Kurdistan is currently dealing with. Masrour was a staunch supporter of the referendum while Nechirvan appeared to want to disassociate from the decision.
“That was clear,” Hawez says. “Masrour was part of the machine that helped produce the referendum while Nechirvan was against holding the referendum, saying that the timing was wrong.”
Even after the referendum, when the Iraqi military began moving towards Iraqi Kurdistan and the threat of real violence arose, Masrour wanted to keep control of the border crossings of Fish Khabour and Ibrahim al-Khalil, where Iraqis cross into Syria and Turkey respectively.
“He wanted this even though it was clear that he would have to use force,” Hawez says. “Whereas Nechirvan was all about the idea of dialogue and coming to some sort of agreement about the joint administration of these crossings, between Erbil and Baghdad.”
The rivalry seems to have become even more open after the independence referendum in October. Nechirvan responded to the Iraqi military incursions into territory that the Kurds had previously supervised, as well as the shutting of borders and airports, by trying the diplomatic route. Over the past months, he has visited Baghdad as well as other international allies, trying to get a favourable response. Then in late February, Masrour made an unexpected visit to meet with US officials at the White House.
While officials inside the party say there is no rivalry, Kamran Mantak, a professor of political science at Erbil's Salahaddin University, disagrees. This rivalry has been going on for some time, he suggests. “This conflict will only intensify in the future, now that Massoud Barzani has gone. All of the moves Nechirvan and Masrour make, whether inside the country and party or outside, are aimed at being the only successor to Massoud. They are building relationships that will allow them to hold the highest job in the Kurdish region in the future.”
The KDP still insists that the party is united and because of this, and the KDP’s history of cohesion, one imagines the cousins might eventually reach an agreement where both see their interests protected.