Once upon a time, thousands of years ago, a proud and independent nation lived and thrived in its own land in the heart of the Middle East. Throughout the ages, although subject to many foreign invasions, this people refused to be integrated with their various conquerors and retained their distinctive culture. At the start of the First World War, their country was a small part of the Ottoman empire. Afterwards, in shaping the future Middle East, the Western powers, in particular the United Kingdom, promised to act as guarantors of this people’s freedom. It was a promise subsequently broken.
The broad outlines of this story may sound familiar, but no, it is not the Jewish people or Israel being described. It is the long, convoluted and unresolved history of the Kurds. Yet events have conspired to bring the Kurdish and the Jewish people into an embryonic relationship that might yet develop into a new political force in the Middle East.
The Kurds are an ethnic group who have historically inhabited a distinct geographical area flanked by mountain ranges, once referred to as Kurdistan. No such location is depicted on current maps, and the old Kurdistan now falls within the sovereign space of four separate states. Even so, the area is still recognizable, and the people who inhabit it still consider themselves Kurds.
It is certainly an odd, indeed unique, situation. What was once Kurdistan, together with all its 30-plus million inhabitants, is currently divided between Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. Most Kurds live within Turkey’s borders, but Kurds form the largest minority in Syria, while within Iraq they have developed a near autonomous state.
As for Turkey, more than 40,000 people have been killed in the three-decade conflict between Turkey and the Kurdish independence movement, the PKK. Comprising about 20% of Turkey's 77 million population, fractious Kurds have long been a pressing political problem for Turkey. But on June 25, 2014, Turkey's government took its first concrete step in an effort to secure peace with its Kurdish population, seeking to advance talks ahead of elections in August, when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will doubtless become the country's first directly elected president. Even though Erdogan is seeking the Kurdish vote, there is no possibility of Turkish Kurds being granted any form of autonomy. It may seem paradoxical, but Erdogan strongly supports Kurdish independence in Iraq – mainly, one suspects, because he would prefer a weakened and divided Iraq on his doorstep to a strong unified state.
As for the rest of historic Kurdistan, the current turmoil within the Middle East has provided the Kurds an unexpected opportunity to reassert their long-suppressed yearning to rule themselves. There is a surprising sub-text to this upsurge in Kurdish self-confidence – growing indications that the Kurdish leadership is anxious for a close and friendly working relationship with Israel.
Kurdish nationalism emerged with the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, largely as a reaction to the secular nationalism that revolutionized Turkey under Mustafa Kemal in the 1920s. The first of many violent uprisings occurred in 1923 and, after 20 more years of struggle, Mullah Mustafa Barzani emerged as the figurehead for Kurdish separatism. He helped set up a Kurdish Republic (KDP) in Iran in 1946, but this was crushed by the Iranian army and he was forced into exile.
When the monarchy in Iraq was overthrown in 1958, Barzani returned but, just two years later, after another uprising, his KDP was broken up by the Iraqi government. A peace deal between the government of Iraq and the Kurdish rebels was eventually signed in 1970, granting recognition of their language and self-rule, though clashes over control of the oil-rich area around Kirkuk continued.
When Barzani died in 1979, the leadership of the KDP passed to his son, Masoud. But a new – and, as it turned out, rival – force had emerged in Kurdish politics with the founding by Jalal Talabani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). During the Iran-Iraq War, which began in 1980, the KDP sided with the Iranians against Saddam Hussein and helped launch an offensive from the north. In retribution Saddam ordered the notorious poison gas attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja, during which some 5,000 civilians were massacred.
Later, during the 1990s, the KDP and the PUK fought a bitter civil war for control of the Kurdish-dominated parts of northern Iraq. Finally, in 1998, Barzani of the KDP and Talabani of the PUK agreed a peace treaty and signed a joint leadership deal. Eventually the two organizations established a unified regional government. Masoud Barzani became a member of the Iraqi Governing Council and later served as its president. He was elected President of Iraqi Kurdistan in June 2005.
Meanwhile in Syria the civil war brought the Kurds to the forefront of the region’s politics. Syrian government forces abandoned many Kurdish occupied areas in the north and north-east of the country, leaving the Kurds to administer them themselves. In October 2011, sponsored by Iraqi Kurdish President Barzani, the Syrian Kurds established a Kurdish National Council (KNC) composed of no less than 15 separate parties all pressing for Kurdish autonomy.
In June 2014 the leader of the Kurdish Left, one of the 15, penned a letter to Israel’s President-elect Reuven Rivlin. Israel “isn’t our enemy,” wrote Mahsum Simo; Syrian President Bashar Assad and his aides were. “We in the Kurdish Left Party ask the government and people of Israel to stand by the Syrian people [more than before],” he said.
On June 25, The Jerusalem Post reported that Amir Abdi, the head of foreign relations for the Kurdish Party, when asked what kind of relationship his party envisages with Israel, responded: “We share a strong relationship with the friendly State of Israel and do not forget” the aid they have given to wounded Syrians inside their country.
His sentiment was reiterated by Mohammed Adnan, chairman of the Revolutionary Congregation for Syria’s Future which, he explained, was made up of all ethnic and religious groups in Syria.
“It is our job to build a peaceful future,” he said, and “cooperate with Israel...We are ready to make peace.”
Mendi Safadi, an Israeli Druse who served as former Likud deputy minister Ayoub Kara’s chief of staff, has independently met with members of the liberal and democratic Syrian opposition who want friendly relations with Israel. Safadi asserts that these moderate opposition groups want to make the unprecedented offer of inviting an Israeli representative to take part in future working meetings with foreign government representatives.
These are straws in the wind, indeed. It seems clear that if Iraqi Kurdistan eventually emerges as a sovereign state, Israel will be among the first to recognize it. And if any sort of united or autonomous Kurdistan straddling Syria, Iraq and Iran emanates from the current turmoil, Israel might find itself with a valuable friend and ally within the very heartland of the Middle East.
The writer is the author of One Year in the History of Israel and Palestine (2011) and writes the blog “A Mid-East Journal” (www.a-mid-east-journal.blogspot.com).