The month of June 2014 will be remembered as a turning point in the annals of the Middle East, as two new entities might emerge from the ruins of the century-old entity that was once modern Iraq. The trigger for the dramatic change was the melting down of the Iraqi army in its encounters with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Kurdish army, the Peshmerga. In a matter of a few days ISIS captured important cities in the Sunni heartland including Mosul, the second-biggest city in Iraq. No less important was the success of ISIS in taking hold of strategic assets such as banks, oil and gas depots, refineries, airports, and American-made heavy weapons that the Iraqi army had abandoned without a fight. ISIS’ success was so swift that by the end of June it declared the establishment of the Islamic State encompassing parts of Syria and Iraq. In certain ways the ISIS onslaught reminds one of the Mongol attack in 1258, when the Abbasid army collapsed instantly and abandoned Baghdad.
For their part the Kurds managed within a few days to take control of the oil-rich Kirkuk region and start administering it. However, in spite of the simultaneity of the Kurdish and ISIS moves, the two entities are far apart from each other in nature, composition, and approach and are now engaging in border warfare. A comparison between the Kurds and ISIS will help define which course the international community might be advised to take in the region that was formerly known as Iraq.
The Kurds in Iraq, who represent some 20 percent of the Iraqi population (6 million out of a population of 30 million), had already begun their state-building and nation-building process by the early 1990s, and by June 2014 they already had their de facto state. While conventional wisdom had it that a Kurdish entity in Iraq would be a source of instability for the entire region, reality on the ground has proved the opposite over the last decade, during which autonomous Kurdistan has proved to be the most stable, prosperous, peaceful, and democratic part of Iraq. By contrast, it was the Sunni-Shia divide that emerged as the major cause of instability for Iraq and the entire Middle East, with its latest incarnation in the war between the Shii government in Baghdad and the Sunni jihadists of ISIS. Accordingly, the declaration of an Islamic state in Syria and Iraq has caused panic among Arab and non-Arab Sunni states such as Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, which are as wary of Iraq turning into ISIS-stan as much as into Shiistan.
By contrast, Kurdistan has played a positive role in the region. While paying the requisite lip service to the cause of Iraqi territorial integrity championed by the United States, many Arab countries as well as Turkey and Iran did not hesitate to turn Kurdistan into a major business and political partner. These states’ pragmatism and realism had told them that the specter of another non-Arab, non-Turkish, and non-Persian entity in the region pales against the real dangers emanating from their Arab and Sunni brethren. Paradoxically enough, the country that went the farthest in embracing the Kurdish entity was also the one that had been the most vociferous against it: Turkey, which has become the midwife for a Kurdish state in Iraq with oil and gas as foundations for a strategic partnership that Turkey seems to see as a stabilizing force on its own borders.
The most extraordinary Turkish move was the deal it cut with Iraqi Kurdistan for allowing the passage through its territories of two independent Kurdish oil pipelines and one gas pipeline that allow the export of oil independently of Baghdad. The 50-year term of this agreement was indeed revolutionary, and all three parties—Turkey, Iraq, and the Kurds—were aware of its far-reaching significance, namely to help define a pathway by which Kurdish economic independence could metamorphose into political independence. Baghdad’s attempts to stop Turkey from putting this project into effect were to no avail: The final blow came when the Kurds started last month to sell oil independently. It might not be mere coincidence that Turkey approved this Kurdish move almost simultaneously with the Kurdish takeover of Kirkuk. Indeed, according to an article by Soner Cagaptay published in al-Majalla in July, Turkey even went so far as to encourage the Kurds to take control of the oil capital.
History has taught us that when certain dynamics are set in motion it is very difficult to stop them: The Kurdish thrust toward independence seems to be a case in point in spite of the latest setback, which will be discussed below. The changing approach among Middle East experts and world media regarding such a possibility is also worth noting. Whereas for the greater part of the 20th century the Kurdish issue was totally eclipsed by the Palestinian problem, at the turn of the 21st century things have changed, and there is now an explosion of studies and reports on the Kurds many of which express sympathy with the idea of an independent Kurdistan. This new approach is extremely important for encouraging Kurdish politicians to go the extra mile while also offering legitimacy to such a move if and when it takes place.
The international community too is moving slowly but surely toward accepting the reality of an independent Kurdish state. According to a report published by the Kurdish outlet Rudaw in July of this year, the United States, France, Italy, the United Kingdom, Turkey, Jordan, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates were among the countries that have told Kurdish officials they would show understanding in case the Kurds declare independence. In a recent development the European Parliament also gave a tacit nod to Kurdish independence. The Kurds’ inching toward independence received a further boost in early July when regional President Massoud Barzani called for a referendum on Kurdish independence to take place in the coming months.
However, the sudden attacks by ISIS, which started on Aug. 3, appeared to have checked Kurdish momentum. The Kurds now had to cope with multiple challenges: fighting ISIS with inferior military equipment along their new common 1,035-km-long border; struggling with Baghdad over various political, economic, and strategic issues; coping with an economic embargo imposed by Baghdad because of the oil dispute; and accommodating hundreds of thousands of Christian, Yezidi, Kurdish, and even Muslim Arab refugees fleeing nearby territories held by ISIS. Still this setback may turn to be another opportunity for strengthening Kurdish solidarity and national feelings and getting outside support. The U.S. bombings of the ISIS forces while raising Kurdish morale also sent home the message that if worse came to worst and Iraq cannot remain united the United States might give the green light to a Kurdish state.
At this point it is impossible to know if these developments have postponed or accelerated the goal of Kurdish independence. One thing is certain: With the Iraqi state having lost its common unofficial borders with Kurdistan when it relinquished them to ISIS, the world will now be better off if there is a strong Kurdish state to contain the jihadist danger, which has gone from strength to strength over the past six months. All in all, the war that the Kurds are conducting now against ISIS might turn to be their war of independence even as it also saves the region from falling even deeper into chaos and bloodshed.
How should Israelis and Jews approach the idea of an independent Kurdish state? I argue that if there is one state that should support the idea of an independent Kurdistan in Iraq it is Israel, for various moral, political, economic, and strategic reasons. Morally speaking, the Kurds of Iraq were oppressed and persecuted by all Iraqi governments, culminating in the genocide campaign launched against them by Saddam Hussein at the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988. No less than 180,000 Kurds perished in that campaign for the sole reason of being non-Arabs and for seeking to preserve their different identity and their right to self-determination. It is therefore only natural for Israel, whose founders had experienced similar traumatic experiences, to lend its support to a Kurdish state.
Indeed, the affinities between these two small non-Arab nations, both of which have been denied the legitimacy to have a state in a region that the Arabs define as belonging solely to them, go a long way back. These relations, which started in the 1960s and have gone on intermittently until today, have been advantageous for both parties. The Kurds gained military, technological, and humanitarian support while Israel gained access to intelligence. The Kurds also helped Jews who were fleeing from Iraq. However, both parties chose to keep these ties secret because of the expected negative reaction of the surrounding countries.
On the political level, the idea of another non-Arab state coming into existence in the Middle East sends a powerful message to the world and the people of the region that the right to statehood should not be the prerogative of Arabs, Turks, and Persians alone. Just as the international community has been outspoken in its support for a Palestinian state, the same yardstick should be applied to the Kurds. Interestingly, Palestinians do not accept this truism. Rather than showing solidarity with the Kurds, Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian Authority, who is acting relentlessly for a Palestinian state, recently came out against the Kurds’ right to establish a state of their own. Yet the Kurdish entity has already proved its viability much more than the Palestinian entity ever has.
No less important for Israel is the strategic benefit of a Kurdish state that is stable, prosperous, and more secular and democratic than surrounding countries, and that may act as a bulwark against the terrorist, radical, and destabilizing forces that are becoming rampant in the region. The emergence of ISIS in Iraq, if not contained, may endanger Israel as well.
With regard to the possible stance of a Kurdish state toward Israel one may safely assume that it will be friendly to the Jewish state. For one thing, the Kurds will need the sympathy and support of another non-Arab state in the international arena. For another, the Kurds have never been in conflict with Israel nor were they exposed to anti-Israeli or anti-Jewish indoctrination, nor do they harbor anti-Israeli feelings the way the Arab population does. Indeed, rarely did we hear vitriolic attacks or anti-Israeli propaganda from their leaders or from the Kurdish population at large. In a recent opinion poll that asked Kurds which country could be trusted to support Kurdish independence, 56.3 percent said Israel, 8.2 percent Turkey, and 4 percent the United States.
Against this background one wonders why is it that until very recently Israel did not come out publicly in support of the Kurds. The most pertinent explanation is that the Kurds themselves were wary of such an Israeli move because they feared being accused of betraying Iraq and the Arab cause. Nor was Israel willing to put itself at loggerheads with the United States, which has been consistently and systematically against the establishment of a Kurdish state while pursuing the elusive goal of a unified Iraq. Israel had also to take into consideration the reaction of the Arab world, which was filled with conspiracy theories regarding the role of the so-called “Zionist entity” in the breakup of Arab states and the formation of new statelets on their debris. Israel was also very eager not to antagonize Turkey, which during the 1990s was the Kurds’ nemesis and Israel’s best ally.
Due to the sea-changes in the region all these considerations have undergone paradigmatic change. Although hard facts are missing one may assume that as the Kurdish leadership was accelerating its efforts for declaring independence it had itself approached Israeli leaders to grant their public support to such a move, which might be of crucial importance vis-à-vis the United States. This may explain the fact that the three most important Israeli leaders, namely Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, former President Shimon Peres, and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman came out publicly last June almost in tandem to support the establishment of a Kurdish state. The most outspoken was Netanyahu who declared: “We need to support the Kurdish aspiration for independence. They deserve it.”
These declarations seem also to signal that Israel and the United States are no longer on opposing poles regarding the Kurdistan project especially after the blitzkrieg of ISIS and the U.S. realization that Kurdistan could be an important factor for containing the jihadist onslaught and maybe even saving Baghdad. In a talk at the end of June at the Washington Institute, Falah Mustafa Bakir, the de facto Kurdish foreign minister, maintained that the Kurds are seeing from the United States “a growing recognition of Iraq’s new reality, and a corresponding change in attitudes toward the Kurdish past and future.” For his part, President Barzani stated to Rudaw on July 6, 2014, that the United States would not “block Kurdish independence.” Indeed, President Barack Obama’s New York Times interview with Thomas L. Friedman last week signaled a turning point in the American approach toward this Kurdish entity.
With regard to Arab countries, as much as they blame Israel for promoting the breakup of Arab countries, the truth is that the collapse of such states as Sudan, Libya, Syria, or Iraq was home-made. Similarly, while blaming “Zionists” for encouraging the formation of what some refer to as a “second Israel,” many of the Arab countries have developed strong ties with the Kurdish entity. A Kurdish official, Adnan Mufti, stated that these countries would “accept the reality of a Kurdish state.” So, the formation of a “second Israel” will, in a way, take the onus from the first one and form a bulwark against radical and destabilizing forces in the region emanating either from states like Iran or terrorist organizations like ISIS or Hamas.
As for Turkey the assumption was that Israeli ties with the Kurds would be fatal for its relations with Ankara. As it turned out it was the Palestinian problem and Turkey’s support for the terrorist organization Hamas that was the cause for a major rupture. Nor can Ankara lecture Israel on ties with the Kurds when unlike Hamas they are pursuing the goal of statehood peacefully. Moreover, Turkey’s own U-turn vis-à-vis the Kurdistan Regional Government and the emergence of potential common economic interests, namely the need to find buyers for Kurdish oil, may change the picture on the Turkish side. When last June Baghdad attempted to prevent Turkey and the Kurds from selling oil independently from the Iraqi central government Israel came to their aid by buying Kurdish oil. If it does not remain episodic, such a move may form a backbone for a triangular cooperation among Turkey, Israel, and the Kurds, since Israel, which is not at a risk of litigation by Baghdad, may thus solve acute problems for the Turkish-Kurdish partnership while itself benefiting from steady flow of oil. And even if not there are many common economic interests that can be developed bilaterally between Israel and the Kurds.
Iraq today is a failed state. The more time passes the more each of the three main constituencies—Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds—reinforce their unique identity and pursue their own very different political agendas, and no external force, not even the United States, can keep them together. In such circumstances, if and when Kurdistan declares independence, Israel should have no dilemma in siding with a moderate, tolerant, pro-Western, and stable entity against a hostile ISIS-stan and Shiistan. Even though Kurdistan might not forge a formal alliance with Israel, its very existence could stem the jihadist and extremist storms that are blowing across the Middle East and threatening to tear it apart.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
Ofra Bengio is Head of the Kurdish Studies Program at the Moshe Dayan Center, Tel Aviv University, and the author of The Kurds of Iraq: Building a State within a State.
Professor Ofra Bengio is senior research associate at the Moshe Center, Tel Aviv University and the author of several books, including The Turkish-Israeli Relationship: Changing Ties of Middle Eastern Outsiders.