A year ago, I argued that Israel should support an independent Kurdistan. Since then, several developments emerged which will have implications for Israeli-Kurdish relations and the broader region. The Kurds sought statehood via referendum, but their actions preempted a backlash from neighboring states and the Iraqi government itself. With the upcoming thirtieth anniversary of the Halabja chemical attack against the Kurds in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, it may be time for Israel to not only recognize the 1988 massacre of Kurds as genocide, but to also help their Kurdish counterparts bring the debate to the international arena in order to receive the international support they need to achieve independence without risking regional isolation again.

On September 25, the Iraqi Kurds held their first official and formal referendum for independence. Voter turnout was 72 percent along with a yes vote of 93 percent. I predicted such positive voting results would give the Kurds leverage over their neighbors to take the next step towards independence, but it actually triggered the opposite effect.

In the days following the referendum, Turkey, Iran, and the Iraqi central government in Baghdad imposed economic hardships on the Kurds by cancelling international flights and closing the borders into and from Iraqi Kurdistan. Then, in October, the Iraqi military with Iranian assistance, seized the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which the Kurds had won when they fought off IS in the summer of 2014. These events devastated the Kurdish economy and led to the greatest civil unrest Iraqi Kurdistan had experienced since the civil war there in 1994.

Nevertheless, Israel should not be discouraged from future support for Kurdish independence in northern Iraq despite the regional isolation it seemingly provoked. Israel was the only country in the world to publicly endorse the referendum, and Ankara, Tehran, and Baghdad again compared the idea of an independent Kurdistan to a second Israel and said that the referendum was just a “Zionist plot.” The neighboring states could also have referenced the real Mossad cooperation with the Kurdish insurgency during the 1960s and 1970s against Iraq in order to delegitimize Kurdish nationalism. However, blaming Israel or charging Zionist/Jewish conspiracies is a tried and true tactic in the Middle East, even when Israel is not materially involved.  Ultimately, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran did not oppose an independent Kurdistan because of Israeli involvement, but rather because they feared an independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq would inspire secession within their Kurdish communities.

Israel has little to lose and much to gain by continuing to support the Iraqi Kurds’ pursuit of independence. In order for Israel to cooperate with the Kurds, it will need a point of access into northern Iraq. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, it was the Shah’s Iran that allowed Israeli personnel  into Iraqi Kurdistan and work with them. Today, the establishment of a sovereign Kurdistan in northern Iraq would create the point of access Israel needs to cooperate with the Kurds without interference from the government of Baghdad, as the the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) would presumably have control over its borders and airspace and decide who may enter their territory. Such a situation would enable the Israeli Defense Forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga to conduct security cooperation and joint military training to combat IS and other Islamist militants on the ground (barring a Turkish blockade). Israel has historically gathered intelligence via the Iraqi Kurds. After independence, Israel’s collection of valuable intelligence from the KRG state would become less risky while also making the areas east of the Levant more accessible to the Jewish state.

Of course, Israel’s support for an independent Kurdistan is not solely based on geopolitical interests, but also rooted in a moral case. Indeed, Israel and many Jews were massacred with chemical agents during the Holocaust just as thousands of Iraqi Kurds were in 1988.  Since 2012, Kurdish delegates and officials of Kurdish descent have been lobbying Western nations to recognize the al-Anfal campaign and the notorious incident in Halabja as genocide. Thus, the Knesset must officially recognize the Halabja genocide as a first step towards recognizing a sovereign Kurdistan.

Moreover, recognizing the Kurdish genocide at the international level may be the key to helping the Kurds establish their rightful place among the nations. Recognition of a genocide can be instrumental to legitimizing statehood, as it raises awareness of a people’s suffering and increases the motivation to support a people’s right to self-determination. As morbid as it may sound, the Holocaust did help the international community sympathize with and better understand the need for a Jewish nation state, and the same could happen for the Kurds with recognition of the Halabja genocide. Israel and the Kurds have a history of lobbying together in Washington to ensure their common geopolitical interests, but now may be the time to also work together to gain international recognition of the Kurdish genocide. Doing so could increase international sympathies for the Kurds and give them the international support they need to take the next step towards independence without risking regional isolation again.     

FREE IN YOUR INBOX
Matzav-R copy
We respect your privacy.
Share
Tweet