Kurdish ties

A visitor from Erbil seeks an upgraded relationship with Israel.

Kurdish Women  (photo credit: AKO RASHEED / REUTERS)
Kurdish Women
(photo credit: AKO RASHEED / REUTERS)
 “ISRAEL could help us in many different ways, such as lobbying for us in the United States and supplying us with weapons. Who knows, maybe it’s already happened?” Dr. Nahro Zagros, vice president of Suran University in Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq, tells The Jerusalem Report.
Zagros visited Israel in early May as a guest of Dr. Ofra Bengio, an expert on Iraq at the Moshe Dayan Center of Tel Aviv University. His visit was coordinated with the Ministry of Foreign affairs and he was accompanied to various meetings by one of its desk officers.
Zagros, an anthropologist by profession, who also serves as a special advisor to the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) gave a lecture to faculty members and students at the university. In his interview with me and in his lecture, he said many countries have already responded to the government’s request to supply weapons to fight Islamic State (IS); these include the US, Britain, France, Hungary, and more, but most of the military aid is just light weapons. “What we really need are heavy weapons,” Zagros says.
The fight against IS is on two fronts. One is taking place in the Kurdish areas of Syria. A few months ago, the Kurdish town of Kobani on the Syrian-Turkish border was liberated by the combined forces of local Syrian Kurds, a military expeditionary force of Iraqi Kurds and international volunteers backed by the US-led international air force coalition. The defeat of IS at the gates of Kobani was a turning point in the battle against them.
On the other front – the Iraqi one ‒ the achievements are also important but less dramatic. The Kurdish fighters known as Peshmerga (one who confronts death) regained areas that had been conquered by IS.
But the war is not over, and during the last six months 1,300 Peshmerga troops were killed in action, a heavy price for the relatively small Kurdish military force. Mosul, the second- largest Iraqi city, which is one hour away from Erbil, is still in the hands of IS, despite claims and preparation by the Iraqi government and predictions by US generals that it would be soon liberated in the “spring offensive.” The offensive has not started yet.
Iran, which has a Kurdish minority, as well, is also among the nations providing weapons to the Kurdish cause. But, according to Zagros, the Iranian weapons are destined only for the militia brigades, which operate under the Talabani family and its political party (whose leading figure Jalal Talabani until recently was the president of Iraq), and not for the Peshmerga fighters associated with the Barzani family. The Talabani family and its party are considered close to Iran.
The Barzani family, on the other hand, and the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) is considered very pro-Western. The head of the party, who is also the president of the Kurdish region, Masoud Barzani, visited Washington in early May and met with President Barack Obama. The Barzani family in the 1960s and 70s formed secret and very intimate ties with Israel, which sent military advisors, weapons and medical equipment to the Peshmerga forces.
This took place primarily during the Kurdish rebellion against Iraq and its fight to achieve independence, or at least autonomy, under the leadership of the legendary Mustafa Barzani (Masoud’s father). In exchange for Israel’s military assistance, which was implemented by the Mossad and coordinated with the US and the government of the Shah of Iran, Barzani’s men helped Israeli intelligence agencies attain information about the Iraqi army and assisted in smuggling some 3,000 Iraqi Jews from Iraq via Iran to Israel.
Israeli policy from the 50s through the 70s (and to a certain degree it remains so today) is based on the ancient dictum “my enemy’s enemy is my friend.” The concept argues that, because of its isolation, Israel should form alliances in the region with non-Arab states (Iran under the Shah, Turkey and Ethiopia) and/or with ethnic minorities in the region (Christians in Lebanon, Kurds in Iraq), which are persecuted by Islamic regimes. The concept, formulated into a policy managed by the Mossad, was called “Peripheral Alliance.”
But, in 1975, the special relations between Israel and the Iraqi Kurds came to an end after the Iranian Shah clinched a deal with the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. In return, the Shah stopped his support for the Kurdish revolt and forced Israel to disengage from Kurdistan.
The ties between Israel and the Barzani family, the KDP and its representatives continue today, though because of the sensitivity of the topic they remain low profile and are regarded as state secrets by both sides. Yet, it didn’t prevent Zagros from openly visiting Israel, meeting with journalists and addressing a public forum.
In the last few months, the international media have reported that Kurdish oil has been delivered by tankers to Israel’s southern port of Ashdod. According to Zagros, the central government in Baghdad is opposed to the Kurds selling their oil independently. The oil flows via a pipeline from the Kirkuk oil fields in Kurdish territory to the Jihan port in Turkey and is then loaded into tankers.
In retaliation for the independent energy policy of the Kurdish Regional Government, the Baghdad government until recently froze funds allocated in the national budget to the Kurds. Only of late has an agreement been signed to free the funds. Still, it is expected that the Kurdish government will continue, whenever possible, with its independent oil policy, which helps prop up its shaky national budget.
Israel’s relationship with Kurdistan is complicated, to say the least. According to foreign reports, there are bilateral intelligence ties. A few years ago, there were dozens of Israeli security advisors working for international and Israeli companies operating in Kurdistan, many of them former members of the Mossad, the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) and the Israel Defense Forces. The most prominent among them was former Mossad chief Danny Yatom. They were involved in training military forces and advising on security measures at Erbil's international airport.
In the last few years, however, the Shin Bet and police have been increasingly vigilant concerning Israelis visiting Kurdistan. Due to its geographic location in Iraq, Kurdistan has been defined as an “enemy state,” and, as such, it is illegal for Israelis to travel there.
Just recently, a former senior Shin Bet official, Moshe Shai, was prosecuted for traveling to the region to develop business ties mainly with the Talabani family. The Shin Bet and Mossad argued that due to the close ties between the Talabanis and Iran, it was too dangerous and risky for Shai to go there because of his past knowledge of secret operations. Shai was warned on a few occasions, and when he ignored the warnings the state prosecutor indicted him. Recently, Shai reached a plea bargain and was sentenced to community service.
“Some of our politicians fear response from Arab states due to our ties with Israel,” Zagros says. “But the Kurdish people and our media are very pro-Israel.” He himself is an avid musician and lover of traditional Jewish music.
“We know that Israel is the only state in the Middle East that consistently supports the creation of an independent Kurdish state” he adds. “This has been mentioned repeatedly by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, former foreign minister Avigdor Liberman, as well as Israel’s UN Ambassador Ron Prosor.”
According to Zagros, Israel’s aid to Kurdistan could be extended beyond its military assistance. It should try, he says, to lobby for Kurdish independence, both in the international community and, particularly, in the US.
The American public has already begun to feel the urgency of the plight of the Kurdish people, Zagros says. The American Congress has begun to assemble a majority in favor of Kurdish independence, he adds, and Israel, with its connections and ties to the US, can help boost this support.
Yossi Melman is an Israeli security commentator and co-author of Spies Against Armageddon. He blogs at www.israelspy.com and tweets at yossi_melman