World’s Betrayal of the Kurds Is a Warning Sign for Israel
The Kurdish people have an inalienable right to national self-determination, just like any other nation. The Kurds, who number some 30 million people, are the largest national group in the world to have no state of their own. The international community is obligated to see to it that they are done historic justice by supporting their dream of being a free nation in their own land.
A referendum was held in September by Iraqi Kurds on whether they should declare independence against a backdrop of threats from Turkey, Iran, the Iraqi government and even Syria’s Bashar Assad. Joining those voices were other states, including the US and Europe, all warning the Kurds — especially the head of the Kurdish region, Masoud Barzani — not to attempt a one-sided declaration of independence. The neighboring countries feared a snowball effect on their own minorities, especially their resident Kurds. More distant states feared another war in oil-rich regions, such as northern Iraq, that could lead to a much wider conflict.
The referendum showed that a vast majority, over 90% of those voting, supported independence. This resulted in Barzani’s acquiring powerful leverage over the Iraqi government, which was naturally unnerved by the results and tried its best to convince him not to declare independence.
The two main issues in the dialogue between Barzani and the Iraqi regime are:
- Delineating the borders of the Kurdish region and determining whether the oil fields and the nearby city of Kirkuk are within those borders.
- Answering the question of what happens to the oil that flows underground in the Kurdish region. Are the profits Iraqi or do they belong to the Kurds?
Barzani is not, however, the only Kurdish actor on the stage. Jalal Talabani, his rival, did not support the push for Kurdish independence and was of the opinion that the Kurds must remain within the national framework of Iraqi sovereignty. He was the Iraqi president (mainly a ceremonial post) from 2005-2014, and died in Germany on October 3, 2017. A pragmatist, Talabani based his opinion on the realistic understanding that a declaration of independence would have a severely negative effect on the Kurds because the surrounding states would do their utmost to ensure its failure: They would not balk at the idea of starving the Kurds into submission by putting the region under siege.
The differences between Barzani and Talabani are nothing new. The two men’s families have been at odds for decades, and in the second half of the 20th century there were actual battles between the two resulting in dead and wounded. The Iraqi regime knew this and took advantage of it by setting one side against the other. The factionalism of the Kurds prevented them from taking a united stand and neighboring states — Turkey, Iran and Syria — were able to use this factionalism to their own ends.
The dispute led to these facts on the ground: the Iraqi army, supported by Shiite militias, moved towards Kirkuk, and the Kurdish Peshmerga fighting force left the city without doing battle. Within two days, the Iraqis took over the city and its adjacent oil field without resorting to violence, neutralizing an important part of the leverage that Barzani was hoping to wield during negotiations with the Iraqi government.
The Pershmega are not united, reflecting the ongoing internal dispute among the Kurds. Some follow Barzani’s orders, while others act under the continuing influence of Talabani. The forces guarding Kirkuk were under the sway of Talabani and gave up the struggle against the Iraqi army, to Barzani’s dismay. The internal strife among the Kurds distances them from their dream of independence, and will continue to do so as long as they cannot agree on its parameters.
The tragedy that has befallen the Kurds is even greater because their fighters, part of the coalition led by the US, were the most important force fighting ISIS. They were given weapons, funding and training by their coalition partners, and shed their blood in hand-to-hand fighting against the jihadists. Hundreds of Peshmerga fighters were killed and wounded in the long, exhausting battle to liberate Mosul from ISIS.
The Kurds expected the world, headed by the US, to stand behind them once ISIS was defeated, remembering their great contribution to that defeat and supporting their demand for independence. Those hopes were dashed very quickly.
The official American stand turned out to be, “We have no intention of interfering in internal Iraqi affairs” — that is, Washington will not support the Kurdish demand for independence led by Barzani, despite the referendum and the Kurdish people’s historic rights. Those Kurds who longed for independence feel betrayed by the nation with whom, for whom, and in whose name they fought a lengthy and bloody struggle with ISIS in which Kurdish victims were sacrificed.
It is possible that the American stand is based on Talabani’s approach, one that saw no need — certainly not an immediate one — to declare independence and preferred that the Kurds integrate into the Iraqi state for good. Naturally, Talabani’s loyalty to the Iraqi regime is being explained by rumors of bribery, jobs and other favors he and his men allegedly received from Iraq and Iran.
On the other hand, there are rumors that Barzani received his own favors from the Saudis, who are interested in preventing a Shiite axis led by Iran. Mideast news sources are full of these hard-to-prove stories. (Anyone who thinks Donald Trump invented the concept of “fake news” is unfamiliar with the media and political discourse of the Middle East.)
For the last several years, and particularly since the July 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, there has been a discernible warming of relations between Israel and the Arab nations that feel threatened by Tehran; those include Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Kuwait, Egypt and Jordan. As a result, there are Israeli pundits, army officers and politicians who view the current regional situation as a golden opportunity. They believe Israel must seize the moment by accepting the Arab peace proposals, establishing a Palestinian state and embarking on a new era of cooperation with the “moderate Sunni axis” in order to bring peace and security to Israel and the entire region. Why? Because all these states fear Iran as much as Israel does, if not more.
But let us suppose that the Iranian threat disappears because Israel launches a successful attack on Tehran’s nuclear facilities. As a result, war breaks out between Israel and Iran (including Hezbollah), Israel sacrifices hundreds of soldiers and civilians — and the Iranian problem ceases to exist. Will the Arab and Western worlds be grateful to Israel and act to protect its interests?
The answer is simple: look to the Kurds. What happened to them will happen to Israel. The Kurds fought ISIS, sacrificed their soldiers and people, and were thrown to the wolves once they had outlived their usefulness. That is exactly what will happen to Israel once it saves the Arab states from the Iranian threat. And why not? The immediate interests of each state, not the moral rights of the Kurds and the Israelis, are what make the world go round.
Israel may indeed be the darling of the “moderate Sunni axis” — for as long as there is an Iranian threat. Once that is gone, the possible fracturing of Iran into ethnic components (on the lines of the former USSR, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia) will obviate the need for good relations with Israel. For this reason, Israel would do well not to give up land for a piece of paper with the word “peace” stamped on it. That paper can easily fly away in the desert wind while the words on it fade in the blazing Middle Eastern sun.
There are two unassailable confirmations of this phenomenon. The first is Israel’s peace with Egypt. That peace was the result of Anwar Sadat’s need for economic assistance from the West, which insisted that peace with Israel precede the granting of aid.
That peace treaty did not stand in Hosni Mubarak’s way when he allowed Hamas and its supporters to smuggle arms from Sinai to Gaza. It was in Mubarak’s interest to bring about a war between Israel and Hamas, because it allowed Israel to do Egypt’s dirty work with the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood (Hamas). As soon as Sinai became a haven of jihadism and began fighting Egypt, the weapons smuggling from Sinai to Gaza ceased abruptly. In short, the peace between Israel and Egypt exists so long as it suits Egyptian interests.
The second confirmation is the peace with Jordan, which was the product of Yitzhak Rabin’s and King Hussein’s shared interest in preventing a Palestinian state from being established. This common interest prompted wide-ranging cooperation between the two countries. However, Hussein’s son, Abdullah II, changed his father’s policies and is a strong backer of the idea of a Palestinian state in the West Bank with its capital in East Jerusalem. He acts against Israel in every international forum, as if he were one of its greatest enemies. He relates to the peace treaty as an agreement to refrain from war and no more, while enjoying its attendant economic benefits.
The clear conclusion from the Kurdish, Egyptian and Jordanian situations is that Israel must not jeopardize its existence, security and interests by placing them in bankrupt Arab insurance companies. Israel must strengthen its position in the Land of Israel and create local governing “emirates” for the powerful West Bank Arab families while battening down Israeli control of the rural areas. No peace treaty can give Israel a lasting insurance policy. The sooner that Israel and the world internalize this truth, the better.
A version of this article was published by Arutz Sheva on October 23, 2017.
Dr. Mordechai Kedar is a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. He served for 25 years in IDF military intelligence specializing in Syria, Arab political discourse, Arab mass media, Islamic groups, and Israeli Arabs, and is an expert on the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups.
BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.