Israel and the Kurds Strive to Maintain Post-US Relationship
So far, traditionally warm relations have not turned into much assistance of any kind
When US President Donald Trump dropped his bombshell and announced the withdrawal of American soldiers from northeastern Syria, Israeli politicians from Right and Left rushed to express their overt support and sympathy for the abandoned Kurds. Party leaders having nothing in common with each other – people who usually can’t stand being in the same room – were now speaking passionately on the Kurdish issue in practically the same words.
Member of Knesset Ayelet Shaked (New Right) mentioned that “the creation of a Kurdish state is a vital Israeli interest.” MK Zvi Hauser (Blue and White), who called two years ago for the creation of a no-fly zone in the Kurdish-held areas in Syria, said: “Israel will send humanitarian aid to the Kurds.” MK Eli Avidar (Yisrael Beytenu) cited the long history of relations between Israel and the Kurds and said that “Israel must stand with the Kurds.”
Not only politicians, but civic leaders as well as rank and file Israelis have been refusing to remain indifferent to the plight of the Kurds in Syria.
Several pro-Kurdish demonstrations took place in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, with hundreds of Israelis (some, but not all of them, of Kurdish descent) demanding justice for the Kurds and an end to Turkish aggression. Non-governmental organizations in Israel and throughout the Jewish world joined forces to provide humanitarian aid for the refugees. Dozens of Israeli army reservists published an open letter calling for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to intervene and provide military and humanitarian assistance to the Kurds.
In light of all this, why is it that, of all people, the Kurds are so popular in Israel? And what kind of assistance, beyond nice words and empathy, can Israel now offer the Kurds in Syria and elsewhere?
Israel’s ‘favorite nation’
Relations between Israel and the Kurds go back more than 60 years. The periphery doctrine, a foreign policy strategy that called for Israel to develop close strategic alliances with non-Arab state and non-state actors in the Middle East that were resisting the hostility of Arab countries, was adopted by Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion in the early days of the state’s existence.
A few years later, Ben-Gurion’s emissaries visited Iraqi Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani.
Back then, Iraq was Israel’s enemy while Turkey and Iran were its allies, and Israel secretly assisted Barzani’s party with military training and some arms. All Kurds fondly recall this assistance though it was offered only to the Kurds of Iraq, not those in Syria, Iran or Turkey, Dr. Mordechai Zaken, an expert on Middle Eastern minorities, tells The Media Line.
“This affection between our nations is mutual. Not only are the Kurds very popular in Israel, but Israel and the Jews enjoy a good deal of respect and sympathy among the Kurds,” Zaken said.
“The reasons for this phenomenon,” he continued, “are multiple: the convivial relations between Jewish and Muslim Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan, and the help Israel provided the Kurds in Iraq in the 1960s…. At some point, the PKK fighters that were trained by the Syrians in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley cooperated with the PLO against Israel, but historically, the Kurdish narrative sees Israel as a positive element while the Israelis believe that the Kurds are the only nation in the region that can have genuinely friendly relations with Israel.”
By the end of the 1980s, Israel and Jewish communities around the globe repeatedly expressed their support for the Kurds.
During the 1991 Gulf War, some Jewish organizations in the United States waged a campaign against the persecution of Kurds by the Iraqi government, and soon after the fall of Saddam Hussein, Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon and Kurdish leaders Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani were rather open about the good relations between Israel and the Kurds. It is not rare to see Israeli flags in Iraqi Kurdistan, and in 2007, a bilingual Hebrew-Kurdish magazine, Israel-Kurd, was published in Erbil.
Relations with Erbil are particularly important for Israel, given the proximity of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq to the Iranian and Turkish borders. And in 2017, Israel became the only country that officially endorsed the Kurdish attempt to gain independence, although some top security officials thought that this might harm the Kurds more than help them.
In theory, an independent Kurdish state could counterbalance the Iranian strategy in the region and become an irreplaceable ally to Israel. Baghdad was infuriated by Israeli public support for the Kurds, and the latter were blamed for relying on Israeli support – although Israel’s endorsement for independence was not a decisive element in Masoud Barzani’s strategy.
After civil war erupted in Syria, many Israeli reporters were able to reach northeastern Syria safely and see with their own eyes the development of an independent Kurdish entity, called Rojava. They returned to Israel with stories about brave Kurdish women who fought Islamic State terrorists ferociously; agricultural communes created amid desperation and chaos; calls for gender equality and democracy; and many more “they are just like us” stories.
Israel was, one might say, “officially in love” with the Syrian Kurds. Some Israelis, such as Canadian-Israeli Gill Rosenberg, joined the Kurdish armed forces in Syria and fought with them against ISIS. Any sign of support for the Kurds was well-received by the general public, and more and more politicians got on board as well.
Former MK Mossi Raz (Meretz), whose family came to Israel from Iraq, believes that there are two types of Israeli support for the Kurds.
“There is one group that supports the issue of human rights everywhere, and it’s driven by compassion and solidarity,” he told The Media Line.
“The other group first looks at their immediate interests,” he said. “If Israel is against [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, then let us be on the side of the Kurds or the Armenians. Otherwise, the Kurds and their struggle for independence would not be so interesting.”
From words to deeds
What can Israel do for the Kurds in Syria today?
It is clear that after the Turkish transborder aggression and the Turkish-Russian agreement in Sochi, Rojava is gone. In the absence of American will to stay and protect them, many Kurds will have to be evacuated from their cities and villages.
Netanyahu’s response to the Turkish offensive has been somewhat muted, perhaps to avoid any semblance of criticism against his close US ally, President Trump, whose removal of American troops from the area is seen to have precipitated the incursion.
Azad Jamkari, a Syrian Kurd and an analyst for the Kurdish Rudaw TV channel in Iraq, told The Media Line that the Kurds in Syria were bewildered by the absence of a louder Israeli reaction.
“The Kurds hope that Israel and Prime Minister Netanyahu will intervene in order to save the lives of innocent people and protect them from Turkish violence. We appreciate the solidarity of the Israeli people, but we expect the Israeli government to do more to prevent pro-Iranian factions from taking over this land that is now becoming Kurd-free,” Jamkari said.
Together with dozens of organizations in the Jewish Diaspora and some Israeli NGOs, Yifa Segal, executive director of the International Legal Forum, has launched a project named “We Will Not Stand Still,” designed to raise funds for humanitarian aid to the Kurds.
“It is much easier for civil society to be engaged in such projects than for the government. We must act,” Segal told The Media Line.
So far, some NIS 10,000, or approximately $2,800, has been collected for this cause.
But many others in Israel believe it is the responsibility of the government to address the issue of aid for Syrian Kurds.
“We don’t have much say in policy issues here since the Kurds are not close to our borders. However, a lot can be done in the humanitarian sphere,” Efraim Sneh, a physician and former general and government minister, told The Media Line.
“Israel can fill the moral vacuum and accept some wounded Kurds for treatment in its hospitals. They can be flown here through Erbil or Jordan – it was done many times in southern Syria. And Israel can offer its help to Kurds in northern Syria,” he said.
For now, Israel has not announced any urgent humanitarian measures aimed at providing relief to Kurds. In general, such aid is quite limited, and the related Foreign Ministry offices are severely underfunded.
At the end of the day, however, it is the security establishment that decides on the matter, and the agency in charge of relations with the Kurds is the Mossad. Thus, there is no significant trade, and not much humanitarian aid. As for military aid, Israel isn’t providing that, either.
For more than eight years of the bloody Syrian conflict, Israel debated whether to provide military aid to the Syrian Druze, but did not get involved. The lessons of intervening in Lebanon were well learned.
“The situation is truly unprecedented and devastating for the Kurds. As a result, Israel’s most pragmatic response may be to focus our energies on working with the Russians to preserve a level of Kurdish autonomy in Syria, beyond what [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad and Iran would like to see,” Eitan Charnoff, a consultant who has worked with the Kurds, told The Media Line.
For now, it seems that the Russians are not enthusiastic about protecting the self-proclaimed Kurdish autonomy. Their top priority is re-establishing Syrian territorial integrity in full for the Assad regime.
“What we need today is for Israel to leverage its relations with the US and its allies to ensure support and help for the Kurds,” Dr. Sherkoh Abbas, president of the Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria, told the Media Line.
“The Kurds lost the battle tactically. They suffered numerous lost lives and the displacement of more than 400,000 people. But the US lost strategically to the Russians, Iranians, Turks, ISIS and the jihadists. The situation is very dangerous,” Abbas said.