Why Israel Went Out on a Limb to Support Kurdish Independence

Sept. 25 2017

Today the people of Iraqi Kurdistan will go to the polls to vote on whether to declare independence from Iraq. Last week, breaking ranks with the U.S., other Middle Eastern leaders, and much of the world, Benjamin Netanyahu publicly announced his support for such a move. In doing so, he not only expressed sympathy with the Kurds’ aspiration to create what their opponents have derisively termed a second Israel—a non-Arab, democratic oasis in the midst of the Middle East—but also affirmed the longstanding ties between Israel and Iraqi Kurds, not to mention a sense of kinship between the Jewish and Kurdish peoples. David Halbfinger writes:

A breakaway Kurdistan could prove valuable to Israel against Iran, which has oppressed its own Kurdish population. But given the interwoven history and shared emotion underlying [Netanyahu’s] statement, present-day geopolitics can seem almost beside the point. The Kurds and the Jews, it turns out, go way back. . . .

The first Jews in Kurdistan, tradition holds, were among the lost tribes of Israel, taken from their land in the 8th century BCE. They liked it there so much, [the local legend goes], that when Cyrus the Great of Persia conquered the Babylonians and let the Jews go back home, many chose instead to stick around. . . .

In the modern era, Kurdish Jews departed en masse for Israel when the Jewish state was created in 1948, leaving Kurdish civil society so bereft that some recall its leaders still lamenting the Jewish exodus decades later.

Ties between the two have only grown warmer and more vital since the 1960s, as Israel and the Kurds—both minorities in an inhospitable region and ever in need of international allies— have repeatedly come to each other’s aid. . . . And while Kurdish leaders have not publicly embraced Israel in the run-up to the referendum, for fear of antagonizing the Arab world, the Israeli flag can routinely be seen at Kurdish rallies in [the regional capital of] Erbil and across Europe.

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More about: Benjamin Netanyahu, Iraq, Israel & Zionism, Israel diplomacy, Kurds

When It Comes to Syria, Vladimir Putin’s Word Can’t Be Trusted

July 13 2018

In the upcoming summit between the Russian and American presidents in Helsinki, the future of Syria is likely to rank high on the agenda. Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, has already made clear that Moscow won’t demand a complete Iranian withdrawal from the country. Donald Trump, by contrast, has expressed his desire for a complete U.S. withdrawal. Examining Moscow’s track record when it comes to maintaining its past commitments regarding Syria, Eli Lake urges caution:

Secretary of State John Kerry spent his last year in office following Lavrov all over the world in an attempt to create a U.S.-Russian framework for resolving the Syrian civil war. He failed. . . . President Trump [now] wants to get to know Putin better—and gauge his willingness to help isolate Iran. This is a pointless and dangerous gambit. First, by announcing his intention to pull U.S. forces out of the country “very soon,” Trump has already given away much of his leverage within Syria.

Ideally, Trump would want to establish a phased plan with Putin, where the U.S. would make some withdrawals following Iranian withdrawals from Syria. But Trump has already made it clear that prior [stated] U.S. objectives for Syria, such as the removal of the dictator Bashar al-Assad, are no longer U.S. objectives. The U.S. has also declined to make commitments to give money for Syrian reconstruction.

Without any leverage, Trump will have to rely even more on Putin’s word, which is worthless. Putin to this day denies any Russian government role in interfering in the 2016 U.S. election. Just last month, Putin went on Austrian television and lied about his government’s role in shooting down a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine. Why would anyone trust Putin to keep his word to help remove Iran and its proxies from Syria?

And this gets to the most dangerous possible outcome of the upcoming summit. The one thing that Kerry never did was to attempt to trade concessions on Syria for concessions on Crimea, the Ukrainian territory that Russia invaded and annexed in 2014. There was a good reason for this: even if one argues that the future of Ukraine is not a high priority for the U.S., it’s a disastrous precedent to allow one nation to change the boundaries of another through force, and particularly of one that signed an agreement with the U.S., UK, and Russia to preserve its territorial integrity in exchange for relinquishing its cold-war-era nuclear weapons.

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More about: Crimea, Donald Trump, Politics & Current Affairs, Russia, Syrian civil war, U.S. Foreign policy, Vladimir Putin