The Kurdish people have an inalienable right to their own national homeland just as other nations do. The Kurds are the largest ethnic entity in the world, numbering some 30 million people, which does not have a state of its own. Over three years ago, I declared – here on Arutz Sheva – that the world is obligated to see to it that historic justice is granted the Kurds by supporting their dream of being a free nation in their own land.
A referendum was held last month among the Iraqi Kurds over whether or not they should declare independence, while in the background threats emanating from Turkey, Iran, the Iraqi government and even Bashar Assad could be discerned. Joining them were other countries, including the USA and Europe, all of them warning the Kurds – and especially their leader, Masoud Barzani – not to attempt a one-sided declaration of independence. The neighboring countries fear a snowball effect on other minorities in their own countries, including their resident Kurds. More distant countries fear another war in the oil-rich regions such as northern Iraq, which could lead to a much wider conflict.
The referendum showed that a vast majority, over 90% of those voting, support independence. This resulted in Masoud Barzani, head of the Kurdish region, acquiring the ability to wield powerful leverage against the Iraqi government, which was naturally unnerved by the results and tried its best to convince Barazani not to declare independence.
The two main issues in the dialogue between Barzani and the Iraqi regime are:
1. Delineating the borders of the Kurdish region and whether the oil fields and the nearby city of Kirkuk are within those borders and
2. What happens to the oil that flows under the ground in the Kurdish region – are the profits Iraqi or do they belong to the Kurds?
Except that Barzani is not the only Kurdish actor on the stage. Jilal Talabani, his rival, did not support the hopes for Kurdish independence espoused by Barzani, and was of the opinion that the Kurds must remain within the national framework of Iraqi sovereignty. He was once the Iraqi president – mainly a ceremonial post – from 2005 to 2014, and died in Germany two weeks ago, on October 3, 2017. A pragmatist, he based his opinion on the realistic understanding that a declaration of independence would have a severely negative effect on the Kurds, because all the surrounding countries would do their utmost to ensure its failure, not balking at the idea of starving the Kurds to death by putting their region under siege.
The differences between Barzani and Talabani are nothing new. In fact, the two famiiies have been at odds for decades, and in the second half of the twentieth century there were actual battles between the two, involving weapons and resulting in dead and wounded. The Iraqi regime knew this well and took advantage of it by forming a coalition of one side against the other. The factionalism of the Kurds prevented them from forming a united stand and the neighboring states – Turkey, Iran and Syria – knew how to make use of this factionalism for their own ends.
This week, the dispute led to 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 Masoud Barzani was hoping th wield during negotiations with the Iraqi government. It seems that the Pershmega are not united and reflect the ongoing internal dispute among the Kurds. Some listen to Barzani’s orders and others act under the influence of Talabani. The forces guarding Kirkuk were under the sway of Talabani and gave up in the struggle against the Iraqi army’s takeover, to Barzani’s dismay. The internal strife among the Kurds distances them from their dream of independence, a dream that will only move farther away for 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 arms, weapons, funding and training by their coalition partners, but it is they and not the coalition’s fighters, who shed their blood in street to street, house to house, room to room fighting against ISIS. Hundreds of Peshmerga fighters were killed and wounded in the long, exhausting battle to liberate Mosul from the Jihadists of the Islamic State.
The Kurds expected the world, headed by the US, to stand behind them once ISIS was defeated, remembering their large contribution to that defeat and supporting their demand for independence. These hopes were dashed very quicly when the official American stand turned out to be that “we have no intention of interfering in internal Iraqi affairs” – that is, the US will not support the Kurdish demand for independence led by Masoud Barzani, this despite the referendum and their historic rights. Those Kurds who longed for independence are disappointed and feel betrayed by the nation with whom, for whom and in whose name they fought for a lengthy and bloody period, one filled with battles and Kurdish victims sacrificed in the war against ISIS.
It is possible that the American stand is based on Talabani’s approach, one which saw no need –certainly not an immediate one – for declaring independence and preferred that the Kurds integrate into the Iraqi state for good. Naturally, Talabani’s loyalty to the Iraqi regime is explained by rumors of bribery, jobs and other favors he and his men received from Iraq and Iran. On the other hand, rumors say that Barzani received his own favors from the Saudis, who are interested in preventing a Shiite axis led by Iran. The Mideast news sources are full of these hard to prove stories (Anyone who thinks that Trump invented the concept of “fake news” is unfamiliar with the media and political discourse of the Middle East…)
Conclusions Israel must draw from the Kurdish saga
For the last several years, and particularly since the signing of the nuclear agreement between Iran and the world powers, there has been a discernable warming of relations between Israel and the Arab nations who feel threatened by Iran. 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 that Israel must take advantage of 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 area. Why? Because all these countries fear Iran as much as, and possibly more, than Israel does.
But let us suppose that the Iranian threat disappears because Israel succeeds in an attack on Iranian 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 Israel’s interests?
The answer is simple: What happened to the Kurds will happen to Israel. The Kurds fought ISIS, sacrificed their soldiers and people, and were thrown to the wolves once they were not needed. That is exactly what the world’s nations will do to Israel once it extricates them from the Iranian problem. Why not? The immediate interests of each and every country and not the moral rights of the Kurds and the Israelis are what makes the world go round.
Israel will indeed be the darling of the “moderate Sunni axis” – that is, for as long as there is an Iranian threat. Once that is gone, the fracturing of Iran into ethnic components (on the lines of the former USSR, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia) will obviate the need for relations with Israel. For this reason, Israel would do well not to give up its lands for a piece of paper with the word “peace” stamped on it, because that paper can easily fly away in the desert wind while the worlds on it fade in the blazing Middle Eastern sun.
There are two unassailable proofs for this phenomenon: The first is the peace with Egypt. This peace was a result of Sadat’s need for economic assistance from Europe and Europe’s insistence that peace with Israel precede the granting of that aid so that its money is not squandered on wars. That peace treaty did not stand in Mubarak’s way when he allowed Hamas and its supporters to smuggle arms from Sinai to Gaza, because it was in Mubarak’s interests to bring about a war between Israel and Hamas, allowing Israel to do the dirty work with the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. As soon as the Sinai became Jihadistan and began fighting Egypt, the weapons smuggling from Sinai to Gaza ceased abruptly. In sum, the peace between Israel and Egypt exists for as long as it suits Egyprian interests.
The second proof is the peace with Jordan, based on Yitzchak Rabin and King Hussein’s shared interest in preventing a Palestinian state from being established. This common interest created wide-ranging cooperation between the two countries. Hussein’s son, Abdullah II, changed his father’s policies and is a strong backer of the idea of a Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria whose capital is East Jerusalem . That is why he acts against Israel in every international forum, as if he were one of Israel’s greatest enemies. He relates to the peace treaty as an agreement to refrain from war and no more, while enjoying the economic benefits he gained from it.
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 absolutely must strengthen its position in the Land of Israel, create local governing emirates for the powerful Arab families in urban Judea and Samaria while battening down Israeli control of the rural areas. No peace treaty can give Israel a lasting insurance policy, and the faster Israel and the world internalize this truth the better.
Written for Arutz Sheva, translated from Hebrew by Rochel Sylvetsky, Consulting and Op-ed Editor, Arutz Sheva English site.