There is an old saying that “the Kurds have no friends but the mountains”. Poetic, poignant and tragic; but not quite true. Despite the mainstream Western media lamenting the latest “betrayal” of Kurdish allies by the US government, there has been one ally who has had a consistent relationship with the Kurds: Israel.
A day after Turkey launched Operation Peace Spring on 9 October, following reports of US President Donald Trump announcing a withdrawal of US troops from north-eastern Syria, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “strongly condemned” the Turkish invasion against the “gallant Kurdish people” and warned of ethnic cleansing. Netanyahu also said that Israel was prepared to extend humanitarian aid to the Kurds. However, as Haaretz has noted, there has been a deafening silence from Netanyahu about Trump effectively abandoning the Kurds to their fate at the hands of the second largest army in NATO.
The relationship between the Kurds and Israel is no mystery. Ties between the two go back to the 1960s, with Israel providing military and humanitarian aid until 1975. The arrangement ended abruptly after the accord signed between Iraq and pre-Islamic Republic Iran, following the latter’s support for Iraqi-Kurdish separatists under the pro-West Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who also enjoyed close ties with Israel. Relations resumed discretely thereafter, becoming more prominent following the US invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, in the form of an Israeli base used to facilitate the training of Kurds; Israel had a strategic interest in supporting Kurdish forces, as a counterweight to Sunni and Shia groups in Iraq. Involvement in the region also gave Israel better access to intelligence from Syria and Iran. Iraqi Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani once said of Israel, “There is no other country to which we Kurds owe so much.” He also told an Israeli emissary that “only the Jews cared about the Kurds.”
— William Al-Sharif (@williamalsharif) October 18, 2019
It is no surprise, then, that Israel has been so vocal in its support for an independent Kurdistan state, primarily to act as a buffer against Arab adversaries and arch-rival Iran, which has its own Kurdish population. It is, however, easy to forget that there was a time when the most important ally for Israel in the region was Turkey, which was the first Muslim majority country to recognise the nascent Zionist state in 1949. This relationship, as with pre-revolutionary Iran’s, was established in more secular times, when Ataturk’s ideology was entrenched in Turkish politics and society. Turkey has increasingly become less secular (although some polls suggest otherwise) and eastward facing under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s AK Party. The relationship took a downward turn with the assault on the Mavi Marmara Flotilla massacre in 2010, when Israeli commandos killed nine humanitarian activists (a tenth died later of his wounds) taking aid to the besieged Gaza Strip, and injured many more. Yet to maintain ties with Turkey, Israel has taken the same view as the US and the EU, and designated the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) as a terrorist organisation.
It thus becomes problematic when the US State Department declares that the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces, which include the Syrian Kurdish militia group the YPG, are the “Syrian offshoot of the PKK”. Washington did, after all, rebrand the Syrian Kurdish militia and encourage it to change its name in order to disassociate itself from the PKK.
The current alliance between the YPG and the Syrian government is pragmatic, given that the Kurds have no one to protect them against the Turkish offensive intended to establish a safe zone for refugees in the border area, yet they have proven time and again to be very politically fickle throughout the Syrian civil war. In the summer of 2016, and not for the first time in the conflict (the earliest known clashes occurred in 2012), the YPG clashed in Aleppo with the so-called Free Syria Army (the FSA), which is supported by Turkey. The rebels accused the YPG of collaborating with the Syrian government against them, whereas in 2014, the YPG and FSA had launched a joint operation command in Kobane in a bid to combat the then emerging threat of Daesh.
We now have a situation where the FSA — which includes jihadists in its ranks, since its rebranding as the “Syrian National Army” — are leading the ground offensive against the YPG. At the time of writing, a shaky five-day ceasefire is in place to allow the YPG to withdraw, although reports claim that this has been violated.
Trump gets a lot of criticism in the mainstream media but at times he has revealed rare gems of raw truth. Like the time that he said that the Saudi royal family won’t last two weeks without US protection, for example. Now he has pointed out that the Kurds “are not angels”, which goes against the message in the mainstream media as establishment figures fall over themselves to express dismay at the betrayal of the Kurds. Almost nonchalantly, Trump said that the PKK is worse than Daesh. He may be right, given that the Syrian chapter of the movement is willing to release its Daesh prisoners, knowing full well the possible impact of such a move. The Kurds have also committed crimes in Arab villages in areas under their control and persecuted local Christians.
Following the Iraqi Kurdish retreat from Kirkuk in 2017, it became clear that the international community was not interested in an independent state of Kurdistan. Not only are the Kurds scattered in Iran, Turkey, Iraq and Syria — two of the region’s natural hegemons are in that list – but they also have affiliations with Israel and just about anyone else with whom any close links are convenient at the time. This renders a possible Kurdistan politically untrustworthy.
A complete withdrawal of the US from Syria would be disastrous for the documented Zionist plan for the Balkanisation of Syria and the wider Middle East, which is why Israel has demanded that the US base near the Jordan border remains open, so as to serve as an obstacle between the Iran-Syria-Lebanon corridor. Crucially, in another of Trump’s slip-ups, the US is still holding on to the Syrian oil fields in the east. Despite the US President’s acknowledgement that they still are in control, the likelihood of a US pull-out is inevitable as the Syrian army retakes its territory with Russian support, leaving Washington’s position unsustainable.
Furthermore, maps reveal that the Kurdish population in Syrian territory has claimed vastly more land east of the River Euphrates than the land which is their historic region. We have seen this sort of thing before in the region, and continue to do so to this day.
As the Kurds navigate through a myriad of short-term alliances – often with false promises of statehood or autonomy ringing in their ears, or even protection from an existential threat — they are likely to be betrayed. Unfortunately for them, they are once again being used by the West as pawns against the perceived bogey of the day in an imperial project gone wrong.
Nevertheless, the one constant which they can count on is support from Israel. Hence, a state of Kurdistan is only ever going to be an Israeli proxy, as the fragmentation of Arab states serves the Yinon Plan for Greater Israel with the hope that, “sectarian-based states become Israel’s satellites and, ironically, its source of moral legitimation”.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.