Opinion

Why Israel Can't Support an Independent Kurdish State

Jews and Kurds share a history of statelessness and persecution, and Israel's sending out supportive noises ahead of the September 25th referendum. But Jerusalem can't afford the real cost of a reborn Kurdistan: an empowered Iran

Demonstrating in support of the referendum for independence of Kurdish Iraq in front of the Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. September 10, 2017
PIERRE ALBOUY/REUTERS

As September 25th, the date set for a referendum on the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan approaches, Israel must treat a position of even tentative support for Kurdish independence with caution.

Jews and Kurds share a profoundly similar history of statelessness, persecution, and hope for change. They have, more than once in living memory, shared the same enemies in the Middle East, too.

The Kurds, for their part, are actively reaching out to Israel and to the Jewish community worldwide in the hope of enlisting support, making efforts to connect to its Jewish community history, establishing a quiet oil trade with Israel and winning at least rhetorical support from Jerusalem. 

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Still, Israel’s interests in the feasibility of an independent Kurdistan likely stem more from self-interest than a broader ideological commitment to the Middle East’s minority communities, or notions of a shared national narrative.

The two nations’ mutual adversaries of the 80s and 90s been recast in the last decade or so. The once-imposing figure of Saddam Hussein (who ruthlessly persecuted Kurdish communities in Iraq) has since been replaced by an ever-extending Iranian sphere of influence throughout the region, to which both Israel and the Kurds represent major obstacles.

It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that on several occasions in the last five years Israeli officials have supported the formation of an independent Iraqi Kurdistan. Recently PM Netanyahu called for an independent Kurdish state for the "brave, pro-Western people who share our values," and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked declared this week that "Israel and countries of the West have a major interest in the establishment of the state of Kurdistan", at least in "its Iraqi part".

But despite the warmth, this support is still justifiably tentative. Israel will not in the end be willing  - nor should it be - to stake its own concrete interests and security for broad and intangible ideological principles.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, right, shakes hands with his Iraqi counterpart Fuad Masum before their meeting at his office in Tehran, Iran. Aug. 5, 2017
Ebrahim Noroozi/AP

As U.S.-Iran relations are inflamed and Hezbollah gains ever more strength on Israel’s fringes, the notion that an independent Iraqi Kurdistan would advance Israeli national security objectives in the region is an attractive one.

It's driven by the perception that as the power of ISIS fades in Iraq after the fall of Mosul, Kurdistan could provide an effective bulwark against the supreme threat to Israel’s interest in the region: Iran.

Iran's responses (and those of its Iraqi allies) to the Kurdish referendum reinforce this impression. Major General Mohammad Bagheri, Iran’s Armed Forces General Staff Chief, has called the referendum "unacceptable", and the leader of Iraq’s National Wisdom Stream, Ammar al Hakim, has gone as far as suggesting that Israel itself had a part in instigating the referendum.

This level of vocal opposition is to be expected from the Iranian state media machine, and risks overstatement of the real world ramifications the referendum could have.

For Israel, an independent Iraqi Kurdistan may prove a disrupting force against Iran - but it is far from a solution to the Iranian security dilemma.

A member of the Kurdish security forces stands guard in Sinjar region, Iraq. August 2, 2017
SUHAIB SALEM/REUTERS

This so-called disruption would be at a disadvantage from the get-go. Kurdish Peshmerga fighters have gained international celebrity for their brave resistance against ISIS, but the future Kurdish state would be on the back foot against a more hostile Iran. The state would be landlocked, and have no way of transporting the oil, on which it relies for its economic prosperity, to the sea. The bulk of Kurdish oil is currently transported via the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline, which passes through an ever-inimical Turkey. 

Militarily, Iranian-backed Shia Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) hold important areas bordering a future Kurdistan that also secure Iran an all-important corridor into Assad’s Syria. Clashes are already being reported on a semi-regular basis between Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps and Kurdish militias on the border of the two countries as Iran amps up pressure.

The planned state also currently lacks international backers.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has asked the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) leadership to cancel or postpone the referendum, but has been stonewalled by Kurdish President Massoud Barzani. Unsurprisingly, neighbors closer to home, such as Turkey have also sought to discredit the referendum, facing their own internal Kurdish opposition.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis meets with Iraq's Kurdistan region's President Massoud Barzani in Erbil, Iraq. August 22, 2017
AZAD LASHKARI/REUTERS

This common opposition from both Iran and Turkey is likely to complicate matters further from an Israeli perspective. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with Iran's Bagheri last month in Istanbul, where hands shook and heads nodded on the importance of Iranian-Turkish unity on opposition towards an independent Kurdistan. The meeting also produced plans for greater cooperation between the two countries in the Syrian theatre.

An Israeli approach that favors Kurdish independence also ignores Iran’s current political influence in Iraq writ large.

Tehran is positioning itself as Baghdad’s primary post-ISIS ally and will have ever more reason to do so in a polarized and divided Iraq. Large economic and construction projects to re-develop Iraq’s economy will only result in Tehran further tightening its hold on its neighbor.

Donald Trump’s policy of prioritizing the defeat of ISIS in the Middle East likely does more to strengthen Iran’s hand than an independent Kurdistan would weaken it. It is a policy that glosses over Iran’s long-term plans entirely despite the president's inflammatory rhetoric directed against it.

Israeli support for the Kurds opens doors for a continued cooperation between Iran and its proxies in the region and pulls Turkey even further away from its nascent rapprochement with Israel.

In almost every sense, then, Iraqi Kurdistan is stronger in its current position than that in which it would find itself after a successful independence referendum. Even if independent, it would be cornered by more powerful adversaries and fail to block Iranian machinations that must remain Israel’s main concerns.  

U.S. foreign policy on the matter remains, like the President himself, fickle and ineffectual. Israel must break with past obfuscatory rhetoric from Netanyahu’s "Islamic State of Iran" years and impress on Donald Trump the importance of a more complex response to the crisis in Syria and Iraq. It is in Israel’s interests to attempt to keep its closest allies onside rather than seeking to outstretch a hand of friendship – no matter how ideologically or culturally tempting - to Erbil. 

Daniel Amir is a graduate of the University of Oxford in Oriental Studies and a student at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He has worked in foreign policy and counter-extremism in both London and Washington D.C. Twitter: @Daniel_Amir1