Creating new perspectives since 2009

Strategic dimensions of the relationship between Israel and Iraqi Kurdistan

September 1, 2015 at 9:17 am

Israel tried to provide a simple explanation for what was uncovered by Britain’s Financial Times two days ago, which confirmed that 75 per cent of the fuel imported by Israel comes from Iraqi Kurdistan. The Israelis claimed that this is part of their desire to strengthen the abilities of the autonomous government in Erbil so that it can continue its war against Daesh. Yisrael Hayom (“Israel Today”) newspaper, which is close to the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and is considered to be his mouthpiece, tried to make the set-up look like an indirect Israeli contribution to the international campaign against Daesh, by funding Kurdistan’s war efforts.

The truth is that the strategy being followed by Israel in its strong relationship with Iraqi Kurdistan goes far beyond the war against Daesh. That is used as an excuse to justify the partnership, with Israel aiming specifically at employing its relations with Erbil to improve the regional and strategic environment, especially in light of recent transformations across the Middle East.

Israeli interests

Its keenness to cooperate with the Kurds and interest in strengthening the economic and military abilities of Iraqi Kurdistan come as Israel is mainly interested in enabling the Erbil government to secure the terms and conditions that will help it to declare its independence from Baghdad. No other country but Israel shows such enthusiasm for the concept of turning the region into a state; it is launching political, diplomatic and media campaigns intended to secure international recognition of Kurdistan’s independence from Iraq.

It was Netanyahu who announced Israel’s support for the “aspiration of the Kurdish people to achieve self-determination and to establish their independent state.” On 22 June last year, his then Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman did not hesitate to contact his US counterpart, John Kerry, and urge him to change America’s position on the independence of Kurdistan, on the grounds that Iraq is already more or less divided (Haaretz, 29 June 2014). Because of his good relationship with US President Barack Obama, Netanyahu has instructed Israel’s former President Shimon Peres to try to influence Washington and convince it to announce its explicit support for the independence of the Kurdish region.

According to Maariv (9 May 2015), due to the depth of Iraqi Kurdistan’s reliance on Israeli support for the idea of independence from Iraq, the regional government sent its political advisor Dr Nahro Zagros to Tel Aviv for discussions with senior officials about the political support which Israel can provide to the Kurdish movement. Again, the aim is to secure international recognition for its independence from Iraq.

In return, Zagros went out of his way in an interview with Maariv to talk about Kurdish solidarity with Israel. There is no doubt that Tel Aviv is betting on the role to be played by the future Kurdish state in creating a profound positive shift in the strategic and regional environment with regards to Israel. The logic at play is that a Kurdish state north of Iraq will be the nucleus for a bigger Kurdish state that can later annex the Kurdish areas in Syria, Turkey and Iran.

The extended Kurdish state will enable Israel to kill a number of birds with one stone, as the supposition is that the new state will continue the historic approach of Kurdistan towards its alliance with the Zionist state. It will have a strategic partnership with Tel Aviv, thus reducing the latter’s isolation and increasing its room for manoeuvre in terms of influence across the region. Thus it was not wrong for military affairs commentator Alon Ben-David to assert in Maariv (30 June 2015) that a Kurdish state made up of parts of Iraq, Syria and Turkey would represent “a dream ally for Israel.”

The announcement of such a state would reduce the risk of an “eastern front” along which Israel could be attacked. International recognition of Kurdistan as a state would be the de facto announcement of the break-up of Iraq by international consensus.

There is no doubt that a large Kurdish state would guarantee Israeli interests in Syria, even as the conflict therein is ongoing. The division of Syria into ethnic and sectarian cantons, with the Kurds ceding to Kurdistan, would be Israel’s favoured result, as it would liquidate the state of Syria and the threat it poses to Israeli hegemony. This achievement will be even more beneficial for Israel in the event of a regional consensus on the creation of an Alawite statelet on the Syrian coast.

It is clear that a Kurdish state allied with Israel will enable Tel Aviv to work easily in the heart of Syria, especially if the scenario it presents of Sunni Islamist groups using areas within Syria to counter Israeli influence is realised. What’s interesting is that the successes achieved by the Kurds in Syria in facing Daesh has made a lot of Israelis believe that they can rely on them to block the risks that Israel may be exposed to after the collapse of the Assad regime.

For example, General Ravin Erlich, Director of the Centre for Intelligence Heritage and Terrorism Studies, thinks that, apart from the Kurds, there is no local power that Israel can rely on in the face of Sunni Jihadi organisations; the performance of Kurdish fighters proves the need for a Kurdish state in north Iraq and Syria (Mekor Rishon, 26 June 2015). Then there are the situation assessment reports issued by Iroshlim Centre for the Study of Society and the State, headed by Israeli diplomat Dore Gold, which detailed the strategic returns Israel would gain from dividing Syria.

Besieging Turkey and Iran

One of the reasons pushing the Israeli security elites to speak publicly about their enthusiasm for a Kurdish state is their belief that it would contribute to the besieging of both Turkey and Iran.

General Uzi Dayan, head of the National Security Council and a former commander of Israeli Military Intelligence, has spoken previously about the important role of a Kurdish state in besieging Ankara and Tehran on the grounds that such a role reduces the ability of the two countries to pay full attention to the conflict with Israel. It is worth noting that Israel has utilised the Kurdistan region to work against Iran, with foreign media revealing that the Mossad spy agency has used Kurdistan as a base to carry out covert operations against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Israeli support for the Kurdistan region is not limited to buying oil, but extends to broader economic cooperation. On 19 November last year, for example, Maariv revealed that Israeli companies invest heavily in Kurdistan, especially in energy, construction, communications and security. All such companies operating in the region, it claimed, are run by senior military and intelligence reservist officers, headed by General Danny Yatom, the former head of Mossad.

Roots of the relationship

The relationship between Israel and the Kurds in northern Iraq dates back to the late sixties, and came about as part of the “periphery alliance” strategy adopted by Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion. It was based on closer ties with regional states, and ethnic and religious minorities in conflict with Arab states, which have an effect on the conflict with Israel. Due to Israel’s fears about Iraq’s future role in the conflict, it has been keen on keeping confidential the details of its relations with the Kurds, who are in conflict with the central government in Baghdad.

In his newly-released memoirs, former deputy head of Mossad Nashik Nafoot says that the agency worked on the training and arming of Kurdish fighters led by Mustafa Barzani. He pays particular attention to the Kurds having played a central role in helping Israel to displace the Jews of Iraq in late 1969, when they were transferred from their homes towards the borders with Iran, which had a covert alliance with Israel, before being transferred to Israel.

Nafoot’s testimony has a special importance, because he was the one in charge of managing and developing this relationship for Mossad. He pointed out that he retains personal relations with many Kurdish leaders, including the current President, Massoud Barzani.

In short, in the absence of a unified Arab strategy, Israel is trying to recruit the regional shifts and the raging identity conflicts as tools to help it bring about more breakthroughs in the Arab world, in a manner that best serve its own strategic interests.

Translated from Al jazeera net, 26 August, 2015.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.