Iraqi Kurdistan and Israel: A choice between political strategies and moral stances

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Iraqi Kurdish protesters deploy a giant flag of their autonomous Kurdistan region during a demonstration to claim for its independence on July 3, 2014 outside the Kurdistan parliament building in Arbil, in northern Iraq. (Photo: AFP-Safin Hamed)

By: Yazan al-Saadi

Published Saturday, July 19, 2014

Over the course of the past decade, Iraqi Kurdistan, also known as South Kurdistan, has been pushing harder for secession from Iraq and forming an independent Kurdish state. If and when this occurs, will the Kurdish politicians and the population be comfortable allying with Israel?

The journey for Kurdish self-determination has been long and arduous throughout the 20th century.

As early as 1919, Kurdish groups in northern Iraq led by Mahmoud Barzanji rebelled against British colonial domination. The revolt was ferocious, only quelled after the colonial British air-force unleashed a barrage of deadly gas bombs on villages and towns. Barely two years later, in 1922, as Barzanji declared the Kingdom of Kurdistan, another Kurdish revolt against the British was sparked but it too was quickly repressed by force.

Yet the dream of an independent Kurdish state that encompasses north-eastern Syria, south-eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, and western Iran lingered and grew over time. Since those events in the early 20th century, various Kurdish political and resistance groups have surfaced in Syria, Iran, Turkey and Iraq, each of whom having utilized different tactics and alliances to uphold the Kurdish cause, with the aim of demanding representation and self-determination whether in the form of having a voice within these states or forming an independent nation.

It was in Turkey and Iraq especially, that struggles for Kurdish independence bore the brunt of the worst forms of repression.

Today, Iraqi Kurdistan, or South Kurdistan as many Kurds call it, has been able to achieve the greatest level of autonomy ever witnessed in modern Kurdish history. There are already discussions about formally announcing independence from Iraq, at a time when the central government is at its weakest and a referendum has been called to vote on independence. This desire for independence is complemented by wide-spread and often heated debate within Kurdish communities of northern Iraq, and beyond, on what the appropriate means are in declaring independence.

Within this debate questions of what this state's foreign policy would look like and what alliances should such a newly-born state pursue are also raised.

There is arguably nothing more controversial, at least regionally, than the consideration of allying oneself with the Zionist state, Israel.

A “second Israel”

The Kurdistan Regional government (KRG) began administrating the territory after the illegal Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Since the formation of the KRG, there have been numerous reports of the alleged presence of Israeli political, military and intelligence personnel in northern Iraq. So much so that in 2006, during a visit to Kuwait, Massoud Barzani, the head of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and president of KRG, was asked by Kuwaiti reporters of such ties. He responded, “It is not a crime to establish ties with Israel. If Baghdad sets up diplomatic ties with Israel, we will have them open a consulate in Erbil.”

The point for Barzani was that as long as Iraqi Kurdistan was part of Iraq, it was still technically at war with Israel. But Barzani also noted in the 2006 press conference that other Arab countries had ties with Israel, an argument that echoes in many of the debates by Kurdish politicians and public.

Arabs fear Kurdish ties to Israel, linking it to the belief of an attempt by non-Arab communities to subvert and hinder pan-Arabist inclinations.

As far back as the mid-1960s, Iraqi Arab officials and commentators describe the Kurdish desires for independence as an attempt to form a “second Israel,” evoking the fear that another non-Arab state aligned with Western interests would be formed.

Decades later, the description of Iraqi Kurdistan as a “second Israel” would be appropriated in October 2006, this time by Omar Othman (also know as Za'im Ali), the KRG's Minister of the Peshmerga (a Kurdish term used for armed Kurdish fighters), during a meeting with American officials, as a cable document released by WikiLeaks revealed.

Unlike the intentions of Iraqi officials and other Arab commentators decades before, Othman’s description of KRG as a “second Israel” was “because of [KRG's] support of American policies and its opposition to terrorism.”

“He developed this concept, saying that before 2003 the KRG got along well with 'the Arabs' (other Arab countries), but that now the Arab world hates the Kurds because the KRG supports the US. Za'im Ali said Kurds made sacrifices to stand by the US and now they are paying the price. However, he said the case of the Palestinians also hurts the Kurds, because – like the Kurds – the Palestinians are struggling for their legitimate national rights,” the diplomatic cable added.

On June 29 of this year, Israel's right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced his government's support for the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan. It was a surprising announcement, making Israel the first country to publicly voice its support for Kurdish self-determination.

“The Israelis are clearly acting on their own accord,” Ruwayda Mustafa Rabar, a British-Kurdish journalist and commentator, told Al-Akhbar. “[The Israelis] see it as an important opportunity for them because Kurdistan has oil and breaks their alienation in the region.”

“They were acting unilaterally...but it was like the kiss of death,” she added.

Already, the support has garnered criticisms from Arabs in Iraq and the region. Netanyahu's announcement also came after unsubstantiated rumors, propagated by Iraqi television channels and circled by the international mainstream press, that the KRG was selling oil to the Israelis spread throughout social media.

But even if the story was true, Kawa Hassan, knowledge officer for the Dutch-based Hivos organization and visiting fellow at Beirut's Carnegie Middle East Center, pointed out that many Kurds referred to Egyptian oil sales to Israel as a precedent.

“This position therefore says, 'Why is it halal for them, but haram for us?'” Hassan told Al-Akhbar.

“The unfortunate thing about politics is all the back door dealings and under the table agreements. The Arab countries do little to help the Palestinians and are on good terms with the Israeli government behind the scenes. But as soon as support for Kurdistan is mentioned, the Kurds are at the receiving end of the harshest criticism,” Lawen Azad, a former Kurdish journalist and currently an employee in an oil and gas company in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyeh, echoed.

“Like a poisoned chalice”

What benefit does Israel provide for Iraqi Kurds? For one thing, military capabilities.

“The US administration has refused to fund and train the Kurdish armed forces, as there's currently an embargo on the Peshmerga. ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) are fighting with new weapons and the Peshmerga have outdated ones. Ties with Israel could fill that vacuum,” Rabar opined.

Furthermore, Israel offers an ally for the Iraqi Kurds in a neighborhood that seems hostile to Kurdish aspirations.

“When Saddam Hussein showed his support for the Palestinian cause and the people, many Palestinians saw him as their voice which in turn made them supportive of him and were not vocal against the atrocities he committed against the Kurdish people. This led to much resentment towards the Palestinian people and is one of the reasons Kurds support the Israeli government more,” Azad claimed.

Even then, there seems to be a very pragmatic approach to the debates.

“There is a very healthy public debate about this in Kurdish communities,” Hassan said, “and there are many positions. One view points to the betrayal by the US, Israel, and Iran during the [Kurdish] revolution in 1975 as the need to be cautious. Others argue that there is no need for an alliance with Israel, that it is a poisoned chalice. Others point to the other Arab countries that have ties with Israel as an example – this is the stronger position in the political sphere I think.”

“At the same time, researchers, academics, intellectuals, activists and others feel that an alliance with Israel simply won't help,” he added.

Similarly Rabar said, “An alliance with Israel is unlikely because Iraqi Kurdistan is surrounded by Arab countries, and today the priority is to prioritize ties with Turkey – which has become hostile to Israel. But in terms of the discussions on social media, there is a growing argument about how can one accept support from an oppressor when one was the oppressed elsewhere.”

“Ultimately, the key point is, is an alliance in the interest of Kurds? What matters is that independence will be declared and who will support it. Talk is cheap, after all.”

A day after Netanyahu's announcement, the Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told the press that Israel “was taking no action to help the Kurds achieve formal statehood.”

Another, and perhaps more important wrinkle to the issue is the position of other Kurdish groups that clash with the KDP's potential alliance with Israel.

“Many Kurds, historically, and even now, support the Palestinian cause. There is a sense of empathy, a shared sense of injustice,” Hassan argued, pointing to organizations like the Kurdistan's Workers Party (PKK) founded and led by Abdullah Ocalan, who is currently in a Turkish prison. Ocalan's arrest, many believe, would not have been possible without the alleged involvement of the Israeli Mossad.

“There were lots of Kurdish political organizations that have strong ties. Many were in Beirut and in Syria, working with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Don't forget as well that there is a Palestinian Authority consulate, and not an Israeli one, in Erbil,” he added.

To buttress this point, Rustum Joudi, an official for the Syrian Kurdish organization, the Democratic Union Party, harshly criticized any moves to establish relations with Israel by the KDP.

“We, at the PYD in Syria, are against relations with the Zionist state. It is repressing the Palestinians, and has committed attacks against Syria and the rest of the region. We fully support the Resistance in Palestine,” Joudi told Al-Akhbar.

“The relationship with Israel is particular to the KDP. If [the KDP] are building a nation, Israel is exploiting this to create division between Kurds and Arabs in the region,” he said, and added, “There are 25 other Kurdish political groups, many of them are against KDP. This does not help our cause, the Kurds have their inalienable rights, but this will not help us one bit.”

The shadow of disunity looms large if an independent Iraqi Kurdistan forms an alliance with Israel, and it is likely part of the calculations among the Kurdish politicians and their supporters in the region.

As Azad opined to Al-Akhbar, “There needs to be a unifying approach to Kurdish independence and that includes all the other parties in the other parts of Greater Kurdistan. They need to be consulted at some point because yes whilst the notion of an independent Kurdistan (South Kurdistan) is a great achievement, the situation in the other parts cannot be ignored or neglected either. Again, the humanitarian aspect should not be sold for the political gains.”

“Their support could make you a country, which I doubt but you never know, but at what cost? It is a very hard line to walk. Do your political aspirations get in the way of your moral and humanitarian obligations?”


A (brief) history of the Kurds in Iraq

“It was specifically between (Massoud) Barzani and the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), and not other Kurdish groups, that had and built ties with Israel,” Kawa Hassan told Al-Akhbar.

There is a common misconception that the Kurds are a monolithic, homogeneous group, aligned and unified in terms of ideologies and tactics in the goal for self-determination. In reality, there are 30 million Kurds, spread out amongst numerous countries, each with their own dialect. More so, Kurds are composed of numerous denominations and religious beliefs that tie them with different communities beyond their own. The vibrancy and heterogeneity of the Kurds are even more prevalent when considering history.

Unlike other Kurdish groups, as noted by Hassan, Iraqi Kurdistan and KDP's chief Barzani, have a peculiar relationship with the Zionist state, shaped by their subjective experience in Iraq.

The ties between Barzani, the KDP, and Israel were first facilitated by Iraqi Kurdish Jews, who left Iraq for Israel in 1950-51. The ties further developed secretly during the 1960s with the first Kurdish-Iraqi war. The war was led by Mustafa Barzani, the father of current KDP chief Massoud Barzani, following the collapse of a brief and fragile detente between Barzani and the Baghdad government in 1961. It was a war that came about as part of a series of uprisings headed by the Barzani family since the establishment of the modern Iraqi state.

The conflict between Mustafa Barzani and Baghdad persisted, even with radical changes in the Iraqi government from a military coup in 1963 and the Baathist coup five years later.

During the course of the first Kurdish-Iraqi war, Mustafa Barzani established strong ties with the US, Iran, and Israel for political, military, and economic support. In terms of Israel, Mustafa Barzani himself had secretly visited the Zionist state twice, first in 1968 and then in 1973, meetings with senior Israeli officials including then- Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, while a handful of Israeli military advisers were welcomed in the Kurdish regions.

The war ended in 1970 with a cease-fire agreement that granted basic autonomy for the Kurdish regions of northern Iraq, and promises to allow Kurdish representation in the Iraqi government. However, peace was brief and fleeting.

Only four years later, after the failure of the Baathist government to implement parts of the agreement, did a second war break out. Unlike the first Kurdish-Iraqi war, the second Kurdish-Iraqi war lasted a year because Mustafa Barzani was pressured by his international backers to end the conflict. As a result, he and nearly 100,000 of his followers were forced into exile in Iran. Mustafa Barzani would die there in 1979, and his son Massoud became head of the KDP.

Despite Mustafa Barzani's failure, the Kurdish struggle in Iraq was far from over. Now it faced a new chapter with even greater obstacles.

The KDP's exile allowed another Kurdish group known as the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led by Jalal Talabani, currently president of Iraq, to appear. The rise of the PUK sparked off intense fighting between the KDP and PUK, each attempting to monopolize leadership of the Kurdish cause in Iraq. While this was happening, sporadic fighting by various Kurdish groups against the Iraqi government persisted, and then the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s began, in which the Kurds were enticed to join on the Iranian side.

In the face of these challenges, the Iraqi government pursued a policy, described by historians and commentators as genocidal, against Kurdish communities that included rapid Arabization of Kurdish areas and cities such as Kirkuk, brutal bombardment and violence by the Iraqi military, and even the use of chemical weapons on towns like Halabja in 1988. Almost 200,000 Kurdish civilians in total were killed during the campaign launched by Saddam Hussein's regime.

After the Iraq's failed invasion and occupation of Kuwait, and a short Kurdish uprising in 1991, a no-fly-zone was enforced by mainly American and other Western forces over the northern Iraqi region, effectively giving security and autonomy to the Kurdish communities. Due to this opportunity, Massoud Barzani and the KDP were able to return to Iraq, and participated in an elections, where the votes were split between the KDP and their PUK opponents.

The vote-sharing alliance with the PUK quickly broke-down, spurring another inter-Kurdish conflict. It was only through military support from Saddam Hussein's regime that the KDP was able to maintain supremacy. A 1998 peace accord in Washington ended the inter-Kurdish conflict between the PUK and KDP, and both shared various parts of territories. A unified government known as the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) was formed after the 2003 Anglo-American invasion, and continues to be in power today. Barzani heads the KRG, while Talabani was placed as Iraq's president.

In the last few years, the power and autonomy of KRG grew conversely to the ever-weakened central government led by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The Iraqi Kurdistan region has escaped most of the violence ranging in the rest of Iraq, as well as achieved economic and social independence. More so, cities and towns like Kirkuk have returned into the Kurdish fold, in an attempt to reverse Saddam Hussein's Arabization policy. One of the key frictions in regards to Kurdish independence is that the oil fields that lay below these places would be lost by the Iraqi government.

Recently, the motivation for Kurdish Independence has reached almost fever-pitch.

As Lawen Azad noted to Al-Akhbar: “In the last few years we have seen President Barzani threaten the central government with [independence] when tensions have a reached boiling point but this time it was different. The ISIS advance in Iraq caught everyone by surprise and it was an opportunity for many Iraqis and non Iraqis to see that the policies of the Maliki government have marginalized the communities that ISIS has taken and that he is incapable of securing the country's stability. So when independence was spoke about this time, it had more weight, more substance.”

She added, “When President Barzani called on the Kurdistan Parliament for a referendum to be held, everyone was overwhelmed, the time had come. Then of course, you have to face the realities on the ground. Your neighbors and international community. Iran is strongly opposed, Turkey less so (the oil helps of course), Syria is in turmoil as is Iraq. The US calls for the unification of Iraq and places this burden, unfairly, on the shoulders on the Kurds... And then came the Israeli government's declaration in support of Kurdistan.”

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