Navigate to News section

Israel, Turkey, and the Kurds

Disagreement over the future of Kurdish forces in Syria reveals the differences in the U.S. and Israeli approaches to Turkey and the broader Middle East

Dror Zeevi
February 25, 2020
(Photo credit: Ronen Zvulun, Ozan Kose/AFP via Getty Images)
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, right, in photos from 2017(Photo credit: Ronen Zvulun, Ozan Kose/AFP via Getty Images)
(Photo credit: Ronen Zvulun, Ozan Kose/AFP via Getty Images)
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, right, in photos from 2017(Photo credit: Ronen Zvulun, Ozan Kose/AFP via Getty Images)

I was 11 years old when my father, a diplomat in Israel’s London embassy, said goodbye. My mom, pregnant with her third child, wouldn’t say where he’d gone to, but he was back several months later, leaner, sporting a new mustache and a deep tan.

I found out the truth gradually, eavesdropping on late-night conversations in the living room. My father was a Mossad operative, sent to northern Iraq in 1966 to make contact with Mullah Mustafa Barazani, who led the Kurdish rebellion against the Iraqi regime, and offer him Israel’s assistance.

This was part of Israel’s strategy in the 1960s to counter the rising tide of Arab nationalism by creating an alliance of the periphery of the Arab world: Israel, Turkey, Iran, and Ethiopia, as well as rebellious ethnic groups such as the Kurds and the Anyanya rebels in south Sudan. This strategy, never officially announced, lost its steam as militant Pan-Arabism waned in the 1970s. Yet ever since, Israelis maintained a special bond with the Kurds—especially Iraqi Kurds, whose political ambitions, among the disparate Kurdish populations spread over Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, were often aligned with those of Israel. By and large, the Kurds feel the same, perhaps identifying with another struggling minority in the region.

Beyond emotional sympathies, there are real common interests between the two peoples that have manifested themselves time and again. The Kurds were supported by the U.S. and Israel in their fight against Saddam Hussein’s republic of fear, and once again in the last decade against the rising tide of Islamic Jihad in Iraq and Syria.

Turkey, on the other hand, had fought against the Kurds persistently, almost since the foundation of the Republic in 1923. Today, Kurds are about twenty percent of the Turkish population. Some were assimilated into Turkish culture—through migration to big cities, but also in a process that included brute force as official Turkish policy classified Kurds as “Mountain Turks” and prohibited reference to a ‘Kurdish’ people until 1991, but despite those efforts, the majority of Kurds resisted attempts to Turkify them and obliterate their independent heritage.

Turkish leaders have long viewed the Kurds as an existential threat, fearing that if Kurdish majority regions inside Turkey break away it would compromise the sovereignty of the state. That fear has led Ankara’s leaders to regard the Kurdish population outside Turkey’s borders, mainly in Syria, as a danger. The Kurdish underground in Turkey, known as the PKK (standing for Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê‎, Kurdistan Workers Party) originated in the mid ‘70s inside Syria, where the group operated bases, recruited members and conducted training. Since then, the PKK’s ideology—an esoteric form of Marxist nationalism that depended heavily on the views of the group’s leader, Abdullah Öcalan—has evolved, and it now strives for a kind of democratic confederalism within the Turkish state. The evolution matters to Turkish authorities far less than the group’s history of armed resistance, which has included numerous deadly bombings targeting Turkish security forces and, in the past, brutal attacks against civillans including pro-Turkish Kurds who opposed the group-. The political legitimacy of the PKK remains a matter of debate and group’s crimes are undoubtedly exaggerated by Turkish officials aiming to delegitimize all expressions of Kurdish autonomy, but the U.S. State Department has designated the PKK as a foreign terrorist organization since 1997.

Throughout Syria’s civil war, forces aligned with the PKK, mainly the Kurdish YPG militia, have taken a leading role in fighting ISIS and other Sunni jihadist groups operating in Northeastern Syria. Operating under their own auspices or as part of the “Syrian Democratic Forces,” such groups have, at times, received military support from the U.S, while also reaching accommodation with the Syrian authorities led by Bashar al-Assad, despite Damascus and D.C. being official enemies. The Turkish government, however, despite being a U.S. ally that opposes Assad, still sees the PKK as its main nemesis.

Intervening in Syria to destroy PKK support bases across the border, Turkey believed, would put an end to what it saw as the Kurds’ rule of terror. The aftermath of the Syrian civil war, and what they perceived as President Trump’s green light to attack the Kurds following his October announcement that U.S. troops were pulling out of Syria, gave Ankara the opportunity to roll back the Kurds’ gains and deal them a crippling blow.

And this is how Israel and the U.S. have ended up on what appear to be opposite sides of the Turkish-Kurdish conflict. Shortly after Trump’s announcement, as Turkey began a broad offensive against Kurdish forces in northern Syria, the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a statement saying: “Israel strongly condemns the Turkish invasion of the Kurdish areas in Syria and warns against the ethnic cleansing of the Kurds by Turkey and its proxies,” and making an offer from the Israeli government, “to extend humanitarian assistance to the gallant Kurdish people.”

It was not always this way.

For a short period in the late 1990s and the early 2000s, Turkey’s stance towards Kurdish controlled areas were in tune with those of Israel. In order to understand this, a short detour through the complex politics of the Kurdish people may be necessary. Today, there are close to forty million Kurdish people, living mainly in four Middle East countries—Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria—who largely see themselves, despite their nominal nationalities, as one nation striving to establish an independent state. Yet they are divided into many sub-groups that speak different languages. Most of the Kurds in Iraq use one dialect (Sorani), while in Syria most Kurds speak a different dialect (Kurmanji), as do the majority of Kurds in Turkey. While many of Syria’s Kurds have familial and cultural ties to the Kurdish population inside Turkey and are thus oriented towards Ankara as their main rival and center of power, Iraqi Kurds, by contrast, are focused on Baghdad. Though they are often spoken of in the same breath as if they constitute a single entity, the Turkish/Syrian Kurdish groups and Iraqi Kurds are actually two distinct blocs, often politically divided.

After the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Kurdish region in northern Iraq gained a measure of autonomy, and a Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) was established with its capital in the city of Erbil. At the time. Israel and Turkey both decided to invest and strengthen the budding autonomy. Israel, led by Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, saw the KRG as a potential counterbalance to a future hostile Iraqi government, while Turkey’s Erdoğan wanted to drive a deeper wedge between the Iraqi Kurds and their Syrian and Turkish brothers. Thus, both governments helped build the KRG’s infrastructure, export its oil and other resources, and develop services, industry and agriculture.

At this stage President Erdoğan (then prime minister) and his Islamist Justice and Development party were already in power, but Turkey’s relations with Israel were still cordial. Their policies were coordinated; Air Force pilots trained together; Israel exported security items such as unmanned aircraft systems to Turkey; and contracts were signed for maintenance and renovations of military jets and tanks. But as time went by the rift between the two countries widened. It surfaced after the 2006 Lebanon war, which Israel launched just as Erdoğan was attempting to mediate between Israel and Syria, without warning him. Then, after the tragic 2010 Mavi Marmara episode, in which Israeli naval commandos boarded a ship bound for Gaza and, in the ensuing struggle, began shooting after an activist seized one of the commando’s guns, killed 10 of the passengers on board, Erdoğan began to attack Israel for its supposed disregard for Muslim lives. Later, facing a spate of opposition demonstrations at home in 2013, Erdoğan upped his Islamist rhetoric, and claimed that the protests were organized by an “international interest lobby” headed by billionaire George Soros, clearly hinting at a malevolent Jewish cabal assisted by Israel and the CIA. Relations have gone downhill ever since. Ambassadors were recalled, political dialogue abandoned, and military cooperation completely halted.

In 2011, when the Syrian populace rose up against the Assad clan’s rule, Israel adopted a “wait and see” attitude. Despite fierce opposition among Israeli politicians to Assad, his Iranian backers, and his Hezbollah allies, there was fear that his regime’s downfall would lead not to a new more peaceful political alternative but would rather empower Sunni jihadi militants who were exploiting a power vacuum to take over large swaths of Syria and Iraq. Thus, for most of the civil war, Israel intervened only for two purposes: to assist villagers on its border in their attempts to repel jihadi rebels; and to prevent Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah forces from filling the void.

For its part, Turkey sided early on with the anti-Assad rebels and backed a number of groups, among them some Sunni jihadi organizations, including al-Qaida operatives in Syria. Experts still debate the issue of Turkish armament shipments to al-Qaida’s Syrian arm, Jabhat al-Nusra, which recently joined other jihadi groups to form another militant group, Hay’at tahrir al-sham (Levant Liberation Committee), but Turkey clearly allowed jihadis to recruit members from and through its territory, offering them medical and logistic assistance, and buying oil produced in their territories.

Throughout the course of the war, while Israel focused on preventing Iran from securing its “land bridge” between Tehran and the Mediterranean, the U.S. adopted a strategy of prioritizing the defeat of ISIS and al-Qaida forces, while opposing Assad but declining to push for his overthrow. A key part of the U.S. strategy under President Obama included backing Kurdish militia groups, including some, like the YPG with direct links to the PKK. As the Kurds grew in strength and autonomy, the Turks saw an autonomous Kurdish military force, trained by the U.S. army and possessing state-of-the-art weapons coalescing in Syria and believed their worst nightmare was being realized. Such a group would be able to launch operations, and connect to the Kurds inside Turkey, leading to the dreaded breakaway scenario. This placed the U.S. in the strange position of opposing its nominal NATO ally, Turkey while backing forces that the State Department had deemed foreign terrorists, even if that designation has been debated.

Trump, predictably, followed up his initial emphatic pledge to pull U.S. forces out of Syria with subsequent statements that have both repeated that point and contradicted it. At various times, Trump has warned Erdoğan, “Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool!” in his dealings with the Kurds and stated that the Kurdish parties in the conflict are “not angels,” while commending their fighting abilities. Erdoğan, meanwhile, has taken advantage of the U.S. retrenchment by pushing forces into northern Syria leading to the displacement of some 300,000 civilians according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, and the deaths of hundreds of Kurdish fighters killed in battle . Ibrahim Kalın, the Turkish president’s adviser, admitted that the Turks were attempting to change the demography of the region by settling 2 million Arab refugees in areas now populated mainly by Kurds.

As the U.S., under Trump, has telegraphed that it is no longer interested in playing the regional superpower in Middle East conflicts, Israel has ramped up relations with other actors: namely, Russia. Russia has both taken on a leading role in Syria and emerged as a key partner for Turkey, which recently spent billions to purchase the Russian made S-400 missile system over strenuous objections from the U.S., which views the weapon as a significant threat to its new fleet of F-35 aircraft.

In the scrambling of traditional alliances, Israel has become increasingly close with the Sunni Arab kingdoms that had once been mortal enemies, while growing more estranged from its longtime ally, Turkey, and dissenting from U.S. policy toward Syrian Kurds. No American administration before Trump as ever given Israel a freer hand to act in defense of its own interests but that freedom has come as a consequence of America abandoning its long-held role in the region, a change that is pushing Israel closer to Russia. While the Kurds may not represent a vital strategic interest to either the Israelis or the U.S., they are, as they have often been, in the unfortunate circumstance of being a proxy for other people’s disputes and a symbol of their shifting loyalties.

Dror Zeevi is a professor at Ben Gurion University of the Negev and a founding member of Israel’s “Forum for Regional Thinking.” His book, co-authored with Benny Morris, The Thirty Year Genocide: Turkey’s Destruction of its Christian Minorities 1894-1924, was published last year by Harvard University Press.