TERRA INCOGNITA: Israel’s strategy in the Kurdistan crisis

Israel has supported Kurdish aspirations for decades, should it?

A BOY rides a bicycle with the flag of Kurdistan in Tuz Khurmato, Iraq. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A BOY rides a bicycle with the flag of Kurdistan in Tuz Khurmato, Iraq.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Since mid-October, the Iraqi central government and powerful Shia militia leaders have sought to weaken the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). The Kurdistan region is autonomous in northern Iraq and has played a key role in the war against ISIS, and the KRG is an ally of the US and the West. However, since it conducted an independence referendum on September 25th, the KRG has been the target of a campaign by Iran, working closely with Baghdad to destabilize the Kurdistan region, conquer oil fields and close off its border with Syria. While the US and other countries do not want the KRG to be harmed, they have not acted to encourage Baghdad to take a step back.
Israel has supported Kurdish aspirations for decades.
The two countries have shared similar enemies, including Saddam Hussein and the current regime in Tehran.
When there have been crises in the Kurdistan region, such as 1991 and 2014, Israel has sought to encourage support for the Kurds.
However Israel’s outspoken approach to the KRG has been controversial in parts of the region. In mid-September, before the referendum, former Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki told US ambassador in Baghdad Douglas Silliman that Iraq would not permit a “second Israel” in the country. On October 24th Iran’s chief of staff thanked both Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei and Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani for preventing an “American-Israel plot to create a second Israel.”
Given the complex situation and the controversy over public comments about Kurdistan from Israeli leaders, what should Israel’s strategy be concerning the current threats to the KRG? Israel, like other countries in the region, has an interest in preventing Iran from being empowered via its power play in Kirkuk. Iranian influence in Iraq has grown greatly over the last three years in the war against ISIS not only in Iraq, but also in Syria and Lebanon.- Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq also pose a regional threat. In June Hezbollah threatened that the next war with Israel would include volunteers from Iraq and Iran. US President Donald Trump unveiled a new policy to confront Iranian influence in mid-October.
Here Israel has a chance to robustly encourage friends in the US administration that the timetable for pushing forward the new policy regarding Tehran must be sped up in light of Iran’s attempts to destabilize the Kurdistan region. That means encouraging Washington to act decisively and swiftly to make it clear to Baghdad that any further moves against the Kurdistan region are unacceptable. The US has put out statements supporting dialogue between Erbil and Baghdad. The anti-ISIS coalition has also said it opposes violence and urges against destabilizing actions that can distract from the war against the extremists. US Speaker of the House Paul Ryan released a statement on October 25 supporting a “united Iraq under the federal government in Baghdad and we support the Kurdistan Regional government.”
The US didn’t want a crisis in Kurdistan and Iraq, it sought to avoid it. But now the crisis plays into Iran’s hands and gives Washington an opportunity to act.
Jerusalem should encourage it to act quickly and make an example of the latest Iranian meddling, arrogance and hubris.
Israel’s strategy should include emphasizing the way in which what Iran is attempting to do against Kurdistan is linked to other Iranian-backed proxies in the region, including Hezbollah. A Hezbollah official has said that a Kurdish defeat is a victory over US and Israel.
This illustrates that Iran and its allies feel emboldened by harming Kurdistan. That is not in the interests of the US, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf or the central government of Lebanon and Baghdad.
ISRAEL SHOULD also encourage its allies in Europe to provide clear gestures of support for the Kurdistan region. Many of these countries partnered over the last years to train and support Kurdish Peshmerga fighting ISIS. It sends the wrong message to be silent now when the Kurdish region is in turmoil and asking for support.
Countries can support a strong federal Iraq while firmly stating to Baghdad that the recent violence used against Kurds, including 160,000 Kurds who have fled homes in Kirkuk region and elsewhere, is not productive.
Since the referendum, many western powers have refrained from high-level meetings in Erbil. Baghdad has closed the airport to international traffic to reduce Erbil’s ability to reach out to allies. Visits by diplomats from western powers are an important part of helping to create dialogue with Baghdad. They should recognize that the Kurdistan region plays a key role in the stability in Iraq. It was instability, a sectarian central government and weak regions that led to the rise of ISIS.
The future of Iraq largely depends on what is done now to foster unity and Kurds must be a part of that.
Jerusalem should also recognize the growing cooperation between Moscow and Erbil. Russia plays an essential role in the region and it can play a constructive role here as well. This has included a new deal with Rosneft.
The Kurdistan region is an important economic center in the region, one that has developed in recent years.
Israel also should encourage Turkey to find an accommodation with Erbil. Traditionally the Kurdistan region in Iraq has enjoyed good relations with Ankara. This is because they have security and economic interests in common. The Kurdistan region understands that it has suffered in its relations because of the referendum.
However the Iranians and their sectarian militias have sought to exploit the reactions to the referendum to dismember the KRG. Tehran sees the KRG as blocking Iranian hegemony. A weak KRG is not in the interest of Turkey or Baghdad, and that should be stressed.
Anger over the Kurdistan referendum has backfired and allowed Iran to make a major move against an important factor in the region. If many countries thought that the referendum itself would be destabilizing, the real destabilizing affect has already been felt.
Iran wants to take advantage of the window of opportunity afforded by anger against Erbil to exploit Baghdad and Ankara and weaken and embarrassing Washington by sabotaging US policy in Iraq. Now that the damage has been done to the KRG and it clearly understands the reaction to its independence drive, the goal must be to reaffirm the importance of the KRG in a stable Iraq emerging from years of war against ISIS. Israel has a role to play because Israel shares a common enemy in Iran and common allies and interests. Quiet and firm diplomacy can have the desired result.
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