Massoud Barzani
Portrait by Jason Seiler for TIME

Massoud ­Barzani, The Opportunist

When ISIS threw the Middle East jigsaw puzzle into the air, the Kurdish leader reached for a piece

By Karl Vick

What does it say that the most reliable U.S. ally in its campaign against ISIS is an imaginary country? Kurdistan—Land of the Kurds—exists only in two spheres. One is on maps sold in bazaars wherever the Kurdish language is spoken.

The other is on yellow-red-and-green flags Kurds sometimes wave in the countries where they actually reside (according to maps sold everywhere else in the world).

Yet in one of those countries, the Kurds have built themselves a state in all but name. Far to the north of Baghdad, where Iraq’s deserts rise into stony foothills and then into mountains, the Kurdistan Regional Government holds sway. The young statelet has its own army, legislature, border checkpoints, foreign policy and, in Massoud Barzani, a powerful President whose life encapsulates the history of a people whose time finally appears to have come.

The first time Barzani visited the White House, back in 2005, he was dressed, as usual, in a baggy jumpsuit gathered under a cummerbund just below the chest, epaulets and a red-and-white scarf whorled into a squarish turban. It’s the traditional garb of Kurdish males, including Barzani’s father Mustafa, the most famous Kurd since the 12th century general Saladin. A revolutionary who fought for 60 years to create a Kurdish state, Mustafa succeeded for only a year and change in 1946, just long enough for Massoud to be born within its confines. Then its land was reclaimed by Iran, and Mustafa’s soldiers returned to their struggle for independence.

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When the old warrior died, in a Washington hospital in 1979, his legacy of stubborn resistance and noble failure defined the Kurds as the region’s hard-luck heroes, earnest and worthy but doomed to remain the world’s largest ethnic group without a nation of its own.

The legacy of Massoud Barzani, now 68, is still being written. But as the hordes from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) swarmed north from Fallujah in the first days of June, conquering Iraq’s second largest city in four days and then pivoting toward Kurdish lands, one thing was clear: Iraq’s Kurds—and the perhaps 22 million other Kurds around the region—were at a turning point. In many ways, Iraqi Kurdistan was stronger than it had ever been before, with a functioning military and an economy that saw GDP per capita soar from $800 to $5,600 over the past 10 years. All that was suddenly at risk. Kurds are Muslims, and overwhelmingly Sunni at that, but of a tolerant tradition that draws the wrath of the fundamentalists who make up ISIS. On a front stretching 600 miles (965 km), the peshmerga, as the Kurds’ fighters are known, at first were pushed back, outgunned by the well-armed extremists. Not until Aug. 6, when ISIS artillery was arrayed just 30 miles (48 km) from his capital of Erbil, did Barzani issue the order to “fight the terrorists to the last breath.” By then, the Pentagon had his back. U.S. air strikes began the next day, a month before President Barack Obama announced a strategy designed to defeat ISIS.

On the ground, the stakes are even higher. Barzani, the leader of a stateless people, now stands in a position to decide the future of Iraq and with it, perhaps, that of the Middle East. He has spent his entire life navigating its fault lines. He left school to take up arms at age 16 yet speaks Arabic and Farsi as well as Kurdish and understands English. His clothes reflect a traditional, even feudal approach to power that grates on reformists. The Kurdistan Regional Government’s Prime Minister is a nephew, its intelligence chief is Barzani’s son—a fact not lost on ordinary Kurds in Iraq, who in impromptu interviews decline to provide their last names even when praising their leader. “Barzani is criticized by his opponents as a tribal man, but that is the important thing: it guarantees survival,” says Ayub Nuri, the Toronto-based editor of the Kurdish news site Rudaw. “The tribal man knows how to keep things together. Besides, it’s a tribal society.”

Barzani is criticized by his opponents as a tribal man, but that is the important thing: It guarantees survival.

And in many ways things have been going well. Iraq’s Kurds have enjoyed autonomy since 1991, when U.S. President George H.W. Bush ordered a no-fly zone over their land to keep out Saddam Hussein’s forces, who had killed tens of thousands of people. In the decade of turmoil that followed the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, Barzani’s government grew bolder as Baghdad grew weaker. And with this year’s crisis, the Iraqi Kurds crossed a new threshold. When Iraq’s uniformed forces beat a panicked retreat from ISIS, Barzani ordered his peshmerga to take Kirkuk, an oil-rich city that Kurds have long regarded as their own but have not been allowed to control, because it is also claimed by Iraq’s Sunni Arabs. The takeover saved Kirkuk from ISIS—though Baghdad now faces the challenge of getting it back from the Kurds.

Under new Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi—and with the help of U.S. air strikes—Baghdad has managed to rally against ISIS. But it is still the Kurds who are doing much of the fighting against the jihadists, which is appropriate—their goals couldn’t be more different. What ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi seeks to establish is a caliphate, a supranational body that claims dominion over all the world’s Muslims. It’s a system of governance that would sweep away borders and erase the nation-state—and a nation of their own is exactly what Barzani and his people ardently desire. Two days after al-Baghdadi proclaimed himself Caliph Ibrahim on June 29, Barzani announced that Iraqi Kurds would vote “within months” in a referendum on independence. “From now on, we won’t hide that that’s our goal,” he said.

The paradox is that a new Kurdish state could prove as destabilizing to the Middle East as an ISIS victory. Besides roiling Kurdish populations beyond Iraq, redrawing borders risks further undermining the shaky sovereignty of Syria, Libya and Yemen. For now, though, the Kurds seem willing to use their leverage to improve their position within a still existing Iraq, delaying once again the push for independence. On Dec. 2, Barzani approved a pact with the new Iraqi government that ties the Kurds more closely to Baghdad, papering over a rift that began when Barzani stopped sending oil south.

The deal was pushed strongly by the U.S., and it illustrates both the constraints facing Barzani’s government and his talent for navigating them. Iraq’s Kurdish leadership has a history as rough as its geography, with a people spread among four adjoining nations. They’ve been betrayed by the international community repeatedly in the past, but they now count among their allies not only the U.S. but also Israel and Iran. Barzani has even made a friend of Turkey, home to roughly half the world’s perhaps 30 million Kurds—all of whom Ankara has long regarded as a threat to the country’s sovereignty. But Turkey has gradually come to see Iraqi Kurdistan as a valuable market, doing roughly $8 billion in business there annually. In September 2012, Barzani cemented an alliance with Ankara by addressing the convention of Turkey’s ruling party. (For that, he wore a suit and tie.) Two years later, he reached across factional lines to reinforce the Syrian Kurds defending Kobani, the border town that became the showcase for the U.S.-led campaign against ISIS.

“When I was a kid,” says Nuri, the news-site editor, “it was forbidden in our house to say anything critical of his father. It’s not a blind love. We need a leader.”

Massoud Barzani inherited the title by birth, and by dint of his partnership with the U.S., he may end up filling the role for more than just his own people.

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