When it was revealed last month that Israel had requested the United States to prevent a new Turkish military operation in northern Syria, it served as a necessary reminder that Tel Aviv's role in Syria is not limited simply to conducting drone strikes on Syrian regime and Iranian targets in the country. The move revealed that Israel — like Russia, Iran and Turkiye — also has its own interests in northern Syria; not to secure military bases or combat the Iranian or Syrian elements in the area, but to lend support to — or at least defend — a group of armed militias fighting to form a separate and independent Kurdish state.
Tel Aviv's lobbying of Washington to prevent the Turkish offensive on the basis of curbing Iranian influence in the region is thus perplexing, as Tehran is not directly or openly in opposition to the Syrian Kurdish militias or in support of Ankara's military plans. On the contrary, Iranian militias currently have a presence in some northern Syrian towns and areas where they and Syrian regime forces have recently been deployed to assist the Kurdish militias against a Turkish operation.
Even aside from this recent move, though, Israel has long lent support to Kurdish groups over the years. It's mainly been moral support, with the occupation state acting sympathetically to the objective of a separate Kurdish state in the region. Reports have indicated that the support could also be material and military, however, with Kurdish groups allegedly conducting military training with Israeli backing.
Israel's political support for an independent Kurdistan has been clear, of course. This was particularly evident in 2017 when the then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government openly advocated for Kurdish independence from Iraq during the controversial referendum which took place that year.
Support has even come from Israeli generals who have stated their belief that the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) – designated as a terrorist organisation by Turkiye, the US and the European Union – is not a terrorist group. There have been calls for Israel to arm the Kurds from its local media too, with a Jerusalem Post article by a senior Israeli journalist stating that, "An independent Kurdistan would be a second Israel in the Middle East."
The article called for Tel Aviv to "supply the Kurds with the heavy arms that they need to fight for independence." In what the journalist envisioned as "a Kurdish-GCC-French-Israeli alliance to stop Iran", she imagined that the decline of support for Palestinians amongst the Gulf States meant that "the Saudis and other GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] leaders can be persuaded to support the Kurds in the name of stopping Iranian aggression in the Middle East."
In 2019, Israel's pro-Kurdish activism was rekindled again when Turkiye launched its third military offensive in northern Syria – Operation Peace Spring – to clear its border areas of the militias it claims threaten its national security. Back then, Netanyahu condemned the operation as "ethnic cleansing" and offered Israeli assistance to the militias. "Israel is prepared to extend humanitarian assistance to the gallant Kurdish people," he tweeted.
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.
Israel is prepared to extend humanitarian assistance to the gallant Kurdish people.
— Benjamin Netanyahu (@netanyahu) October 10, 2019
Israel's deputy foreign minister at the time, Tzipi Hotovely, then confirmed publicly that the People's Protection Units (YPG) accepted Netanyahu's offer for assistance. "The possible collapse of the Kurdish hold in north Syria is a negative and dangerous scenario as far as Israel is concerned," she wrote. "It is absolutely clear that such an event would bring about a bolstering of negative elements in the area, headed by Iran."
With such blatant Israeli sympathy for a separate and independent Kurdish state in the region – which, if carved out in its entire envisaged shape, would require significant territorial concessions from Iraq, Iran, Syria and especially Turkiye – it is a surprise that there has been so little attention to and concern about the issue from the Turkish government. Instead, it has pursued reconciliation with Israel aggressively.
Ankara and its government under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are, above all and without a doubt, pragmatic and willing to make seemingly short-term tactical sacrifices for long-term strategic gains. It may not be long before it realises, however, that its rapprochement with Tel Aviv could come at the cost of continued Israeli support for Kurdish separatist aspirations. That would, first and foremost, have an impact on Turkiye and its national security.
Despite its support, though, Israel must not be mistaken for an unconditional ally of the Kurds. Like its patron – or, as many suspect, its servant – the US, Israel has its own national and regional interests. These could, at some point in the future, result in unforeseen consequences that would see it abandon the Kurds for more urgent foreign policy goals.
The Kurdish militant groups, therefore, remain a card in Israel's hand, and one which it could always use as leverage against Turkiye and other regional states. After all, in its subtle, decades-long relationship with the Kurds, Tel Aviv has viewed them as a buffer against adversaries in the region, and as a potential tool to utilise one day against the Arab states, Iran and Turkiye all at once.
Ankara perhaps perceives this threat, as it has already been reported as expressing concerns about the potential for Israel to back the PKK as a way to leverage the Turkish government's relations with the Palestinian resistance group Hamas. Without touching on the issue of whether the Kurdish separatist cause is a moral and righteous one or not – that depends on whichever side's interests you believe are most valid – it is in Turkiye's own interest to be cautious in its rapprochement with Israel. The move could come back to haunt it.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.