Analysis

Israel Is Right to Support Kurdish Independence. It Is Also Unwise

Israel isn’t doing the Kurds any favors

An Iraqi Kurdish woman wearing the Kurdish flag on her face flashes the victory gesture amid celebrations in the city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq, on September 25, 2017.
An Iraqi Kurdish woman wearing the Kurdish flag on her face flashes the victory gesture amid celebrations in the city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq, on September 25, 2017. AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP

One needs a heart of stone to oppose Kurdish independence. The nation has been bloodily persecuted for centuries by the tyrannical leaders of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. It has stuck to its identity and its mountainous homeland throughout, despite all attempts to assimilate and disperse it. Kurdistan has just as much historical right to exist as do the four countries that each occupy a part of it. If any referendum is justified, it is the one that took place in the territories of Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government on Monday.

And yet, while we should all be in favor of a free Kurdistan, the support of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and many other Israeli politicians for Kurdish independence in recent weeks was both premature and unwise. For a start, the whole point of a referendum is to ask what the people think. The result is almost guaranteed to be overwhelmingly in favor of independence, but endorsing a “yes” vote in advance is blatantly interfering in the internal affairs of another country.

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Beyond the historical friendship between the two nations, it is clear why Israelis are supporting the Kurds. Kurdistan is located at the strategically critical junction of Iran, Iraq and Syria – the area where Iran is hoping to establish its “Shi’a Crescent” land corridor, which would allow it to transport arms and fighters directly to Hezbollah’s strongholds in Lebanon. A free and pro-Israel Kurdistan on Iran’s borders will not only stymie Iran’s designs but will also be a major strategic asset in the region. But Iran, along with Iraq, which is loath to lose the oil-rich region, and Turkey, which is anxious to prevent any form of Kurdish independence that could influence the much larger number of Kurds living within its own borders, is determined to stop the establishment of Kurdistan. By openly supporting the Kurds, Israel is only creating a situation in which Iran and Turkey will find independence that much harder to stomach.

Unlike Israel, Iran has a border with KRG territory and can act directly against it. Israel can offer covert assistance, but not much more.

The Kurds in northern Iraq still won't have a state the day after they vote for independence. The land-locked autonomous region is surrounded by countries that oppose it breaking away from Iraq. The only way it can continue to trading with the world is through Iran, Iraq or Turkey, all of which have already taken steps to closing their borders and air space. At least one of those three countries will have to come to terms with Kurdish independence in order for Kurdistan to become a reality, which is why the United States and other Western nations which may support independence in principle have all counseled the Kurds to wait with the referendum.

Beyond empty posturing, at this point the Kurds gain absolutely no benefit from Israeli support. The Israeli flags which have been flying in the Kurdish cities in recent days may give Israelis a good feeling that we have friends in the region. But beyond false hopes, there is nothing Israel can do to stop Turkey or Iran from pulverizing Kurdistan at birth, should they choose to do so, or slowly starving it in to submission.

The Kurds' only option is using patient diplomacy to negotiate an orderly breakup with Iraq and some form of trading relations with its hostile neighbors. The U.S., which has some leverage on Turkey and Iraq, may be able to quietly help behind the scenes, and Israel will certainly be urging the Trump administration to do so. But by being the only nation in the world to openly support immediate independence, Israel is doing the Kurds no favors.