3 hours ago | 12 Nov 2019 – RUDAW – Paul Iddon
Just over two years after voicing support for the Kurdish independence referendum, the State of Israel is now providing the Syrian Kurds with both diplomatic and humanitarian assistance. While the stateless Kurds invariably welcome whatever support they can get, Israel’s advocacy for them could inadvertently do more harm than good.
Israel’s current support for the Syrian Kurds is primarily motivated by its desire to counter Iran’s influence in the wider region. The Jewish state says it’s advocating for them in talks with the United States.
Turkey launched a major operation against the Kurds on October 9 after the US withdrew troops from the Syria-Turkey border, displacing hundreds of thousands. Just one day after Turkey launched its operation, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered the “gallant Kurdish people” humanitarian aid in light of the fact they faced a potential “ethnic cleansing.”
Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely told the country’s parliament on November 6 that the SDF had requested “diplomatic and humanitarian” assistance, and that Israel has advocated on their behalf in discussions with the US.
“Israel indeed has a salient interest in preserving the strength of the Kurds and the additional minorities in the north Syria area as moderate and pro-Western elements,” she said.
She added that the “possible collapse” of that region, which has had de facto autonomy since 2012, would be “a negative and dangerous scenario as far as Israel is concerned.”
“It is absolutely clear that such an event would bring about a bolstering of negative elements in the area, headed by Iran.”
It’s unclear if Israel can persuade the US to do more to prevent Turkey from continuing its campaign against the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Russia and the Syrian regime promptly deployed forces to fill the major power vacuum left by the US pullback, meaning the US has much less influence on the ground than it had a mere month ago.
More generally, it’s unclear how much Israel can and will ultimately do to aid the Syrian Kurds. While Israeli-Turkish relations have remained strained over the last decade, it’s extremely unlikely Israel will supply the SDF with the arms needed to defend their vulnerable region against NATO’s second-largest army.
Before this current Turkish operation, the SDF expressed its reservations about potentially being enlisted as a proxy force by the US to help counter Iran in Syria. The group understandably feared that such a partnership would ultimately prove temporary and that by completely antagonizing Tehran it would face major problems down the road.
As one retired US Army officer aptly put it: “From the perspective of the Kurds, we would have to have offered them some kind of major concession, because what benefit would it be to poke Iran, their next door neighbor in the eye, and draw their ire, knowing that when whatever we would do is finished, they’re still going to be there?”
Any alliance between Israel and the SDF with a similar goal of countering Iran in Syria would also likely result in Tehran and Damascus doing whatever they can to destroy the group.
Israel supported the independence aspirations of the Iraqi Kurds. Netanyahu voiced his support for the independence of the Kurdistan Region from as early as June 2014.
In 2016, then Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked also argued that Israel “must openly call for the establishment of a Kurdish state that separates Iran from Turkey, one which will be friendly towards Israel.” On the eve of the September 2017 Kurdish independence referendum, Shaked reiterated that “Israel and countries of the West have a major interest in the establishment of the state of Kurdistan.”
Israel was ultimately the only country that endorsed the referendum. As with its present support of the Syrian Kurds, it also had its own stated self-interest in doing so.
Baghdad infamously responded to the referendum by closing the autonomous region’s airspace and militarily seizing most of the disputed Kurdistani territories, including Kirkuk and Shingal, in a devastating blow to Kurdish morale.
Netanyahu lobbied world leaders in an effort to ensure that the Iraqi Kurds did not face more territorial setbacks after losing Kirkuk, but there was little to nothing else Israel could do to help the landlocked Kurdish region.
While the Kurds were able to retain their autonomy and repair relations with Baghdad, how Iraq and the regional powers which surround the Kurdish enclave responded to the referendum once again demonstrated how vulnerable the region is and how severely limited the assistance foreign powers can or will give it can be.
Consequently, Israel’s support for the Kurds could end up doing them more harm than good if the Jewish state cannot meaningfully assist and help defend them in a crisis.