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ISIS and the Crisis Across Iraq

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Update from AIJAC

August 15, 2014
Number 08/14 #04

With a new Gaza ceasefire in place until Monday, and apparently holding, this Update offers some analysis on the other major, but often under-reported, crisis, gripping the Middle East over recent weeks - the recent gains by the terrorist movement ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, now calling itself simply the Islamic State) in Syria, new attacks on Lebanon, but especially its advances in Iraq, where apparent genocide by ISIS against minority communities, especially the small Yazidi sect, led to an American decision to intervene with airstrikes last week. As the Washington Post reports, ISIS now controls territory and resources unmatched by any extremist group in recent history - and recently captured Iraq's largest dam.

The Iraqi situation has been complicated by a major crisis of government in Baghdad in recent weeks which amounted to an armed standoff - though with the agreement of controversial Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to step down yesterday, that crisis may be easing. (Some analysis of why Maliki agreed to step aside after resisting for weeks is here.)

First up is Washington Institute military expert Jeffrey White, who explores the scope of the advances ISIS has made - as of a week ago. He notes that while ISIS has no chance of taking Baghdad, it may be seeking to isolate the city and could succeed, and while ISIS has had some success against Kurdish forces in northern Iraq, this was predominantly in areas with a mainly non-Kurdish Sunni population. He also explores ISIS' unique method of gaining power and finance by capturing infrastructure, and offers advice on how American military efforts to foil ISIS' advances can be successful. For his complete discussion, CLICK HERE.  Another earlier but still useful discussion of the extent of ISIS gains comes from Jonathan Spyer - who focusses more on ISIS moves in Syria.

Next up, Syrian specialist Andrew Tabler who argues that diplomatically, methods must be found to use the moderate Arab states of the region to bolster moderate Sunni forces in Iraq and Syria - otherwise ISIS may become the voice of Sunni Islam. He particularly warns against seeking to work with Iran to contain ISIS, which would only throw gasoline on the sectarian bonfire and bolster ISIS' claim to represent Sunnis in the fight against the Iranian-led Shi'ite axis. He calls for the US to do more to show that it can help meet Sunni aspirations, including pressure to force Sunni inclusion in the Baghdad government and a commitment to offer training to moderate Sunni forces in both Iraq and Syria. For Tabler's analysis in full, CLICK HERE.

Finally, Israeli academic expert Ofra Bengio argues that Iraq is now a failed state and it is in the interest of both the US and Israel to work with the "most stable, prosperous, peaceful, and democratic part of Iraq" - the Kurdish north, where, in her view, separate statehood is now looking all but inevitable. She sees a dynamic which has been set in motion for Kurdish independence - including acceptance from Turkey and much of the international community - which looks impossible to stop. She offers some advice to Israel about how to deal with  the Kurds - noting the benefits Kurdistan will provide if it contains ISIS, and she also confronts the Arab assumption that only Arabs, Turks and Persians have the right to independence in the Middle East. For all of Bengio's very knowledgeable analysis - including some discussion of recent Kurdish military setbacks against ISIS -  CLICK HERE. Plus, military expert Michael Knights also suggests aiding the Kurds is key to beating back ISIS.

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ISIS Military Success: A Multiple Threat


James F. Jeffrey

August 5, 2014.

The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has demonstrated remarkable strategic mobility and operational speed in a series of offensives over the past few weeks across its operating areas in Iraq and Syria. These have included:

  • Attacks against Syrian government installations, including tightening its grip on the Syrian oil business.
  • A wave of car bombs and suicide bombings that penetrated deep into Shiite Arab neighborhoods of Baghdad, demonstrating the organization's reach and robust support networks even outside Sunni areas. 
  • Twin offensives against the left flank (at Jalula, near the Iranian border) and right flank (at Sinjar and the Mosul dam, in the Syria-Iraq-Turkey tri-border area) of the Kurdistan Regional Government's (KRG's) defense line. In the latter location, ISIS appears to have perpetrated massacres of ethnic Yazidi civilians.

These apparently diffuse military efforts may be consistent parts of a well-planned next stage of ISIS's campaign.

A Focus on Baghdad?

ISIS -- which recently changed its name to the Islamic State (IS) when it declared a caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria -- has no chance of capturing Baghdad but may be seeking to isolate the city. This likely accounts for the heavy fighting to the north and south of the capital, with the west, including Falluja, already under ISIS dominance. If the major communication lines could be cut, in particular if bridges could be blown up -- and ISIS has shown a knack for such combat engineering feats in actions to the north of Baghdad -- then the city could be effectively deprived of foodstuffs, fuel, and potable water, and the population "trapped." This almost happened in 2004 despite the presence of more than 100,000 U.S. troops in country. 

Simultaneously, ISIS could launch another, possibly even larger, wave of bombings than that seen in June and July to terrorize the population already under siege. This might be intended to force the Iraqi government to withdraw forces from strategic areas -- from the Haditha dam to the Bayji refinery -- to defend Baghdad, and if ISIS were "fortunate," such terrorist pressure could trigger an outburst of Shiite militia terror against the city's remaining Sunni Arab population, as seen in 2006-2007. For ISIS, such an outcome would be a strategic game changer, provoking exactly what the group wants -- a regional Shiite-Sunni conflict, with ISIS increasingly serving as the champion of the Sunni majority. This scenario may seem unlikely, but ISIS has not grown and won so rapidly by following logical scenarios.

The Kurdish Front

During the fall of Mosul in June, the KRG withdrew its troops more efficiently than the Iraqi army but did not really fight ISIS. Thereafter, the KRG not only alerted forces along its preconflict "green line" borders but expanded this front line, occupying Kirkuk and the significant oil fields to its north, and pushing south into multiethnic areas from Sinjar on the Syrian border to Jalula near Iran. This "forward" defense, however, involved seizing areas with significant Sunni Arab populations, some of whose members harbored sympathies for either ISIS or more traditional Iraqi Sunni Arab insurgent groups allied with ISIS. It is exactly here where ISIS has made dramatic gains in the past several days, although its surge forward in Jalula appears to have been checked, and the KRG has announced a counterattack toward Sinjar. Still, ISIS's record of holding conquered territory is quite good, and even the peshmerga will have its hands full taking territory back.

Why, then, did the peshmerga not hold on to part of its newly won territory? Unlike many Iraqi army units, peshmerga members are well motivated and, in most cases, well trained and disciplined. They are loyal to their regional government and are the shield between the KRG and insurgent areas. One explanation is that ISIS, while not numerous, is tactically strong, and nothing succeeds in war more than prior success, of which ISIS has had much in recent months. The group is awash in captured equipment, the ammunition stocks of several Iraqi divisions, and apparently considerable cash from oil smuggling, donations, and other sources. The Kurds had certain disadvantages as well. They are spread out on a front of roughly a thousand kilometers. Many of their units have either been hastily called up or redeployed from their usual sectors of the front. In Jalula, they were fighting in a largely Arab area where the majority did not support them. Geography is against them in Sinjar -- an isolated salient that extends deep into ISIS-held terrain, perilously close to ISIS's Syria strongholds. 

Despite the persistent political fights between Erbil and Baghdad over power sharing and oil revenues, some interesting alliances are emerging in the effort to stop ISIS. According to press reporting, Baghdad has offered air support for the Kurds. Thus, Iraqi air force aircraft have been able to use Kirkuk airfield, under peshmerga control, to strike ISIS. Shiite militias also reportedly have negotiated to fly forces into Sulaymaniyah for transfer to Shiite villages to the south of the Kurdish line of control. Meanwhile, multiple reports document Syrian Kurdish reinforcements from the Democratic Union Party (PYD) fighting against ISIS in the Sinjar area, despite policy differences that have troubled relations between many Iraqi and Syrian Kurds for several years.


ISIS continues to show strategic acumen. Aside from dealing sharp setbacks to the Kurds and the campaign around and in Baghdad, the group focuses attention on key infrastructure -- dams, refineries, oil fields -- that can be used to generate cash and exert political control and influence. In some cases, this infrastructure can be used as weapons. For instance, seizing the Haditha dam could allow it to cut considerable electricity to Anbar province and beyond. Opening the dams, as it has done once near Falluja, could present downstream flood danger in Shiite areas. Moreover, by seizing transportation nodes such as Sinjar and Tal Afar, ISIS ensures its ability to rapidly move its forces and supplies back and forth between the Syrian and Iraqi "fronts." Finally, while ISIS's top goal remains isolating Baghdad as a "station" on the road to a regional sectarian war, the group surely covets Kirkuk and its oil fields, the only world-class oil fields near the Sunni Arab parts of the country.

All of these developments should be of utmost concern to the U.S. government. After all, on June 19 the president declared that an ISIS state cannot be tolerated, and dispatched what has now grown to almost eight hundred military personnel to assist the Iraqis and protect the Americans remaining in Baghdad. The United States now has two military intelligence fusion cells operating, in Baghdad and Erbil. Enhanced U.S. intelligence support and combat advising are doubtless much appreciated, but more needs to be done. Washington is providing munitions to the Iraqi army but not to the Kurds. Yet the Kurds need ammunition, particularly for the Soviet-era tanks and artillery they seized in 2003. They need more and newer heavy weapons as well, plus the training and ammunition to make these weapons effective. 

At least as important, the United States should be striking ISIS from the air when it threatens America's erstwhile Sunni tribal allies around the Haditha dam and Ramadi, or when it attacks peshmerga positions, or when ISIS threatens Baghdad. Such actions do not mean serving as Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki's sectarian air force: until the political situation in Baghdad is clearer, such strikes must assuredly be limited and husbanded for high-value ISIS targets. But near-term selective U.S. strikes would increase Washington's clout and leverage with Iraqis of all sectarian and ethnic stripes. The United States is striking al-Qaeda elements throughout the broader Middle East, from Pakistan to Libya and Somalia. Given that top U.S. officials, including National Intelligence director James Clapper Jr. and Attorney General Eric Holder, have described the growing dangers posed by ISIS, strikes should not be delayed for even a moment longer.

James Jeffrey is the Philip Solondz Distinguished Visiting Fellow at The Washington Institute and former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Turkey.

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ISIL Could Become the Voice of Sunnis If We Don't Find a Way to Stop It Soon

By Andrew Tabler

The New Republic, August 11, 2014

The Islamic State in Iraq and Levant’s deep-rooted sense of purpose and its political, financial, and military ability have helped it carve out a safe haven between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. This week’s American airstrikes could help roll ISIL backbut if the American people really do not want to be sucked into another war in the Middle East, then Washington will need to cement these gains by working with Arab allies to bolster the moderate Sunnis who would fill the vacuum in Syria and Iraq following an ISIL defeat.

ISIL’s power comes from its effectiveness in rallying Sunni Muslims to fight against what they perceive to be Iranian-backed Shia regimes in Baghdad and Damascus. Bashar al Assad and Nuri Kamal al Maliki’s attempts to shoot and cajole their Sunni populations into submission have attracted jihadists from all over the world to Syria and Iraq. Unlike other terrorist groups, which rely on financial networks and wealthy benefactors, ISIL emphasizes self-sufficiency, using extortion, sale of oil products, and the charging of taxes and fees to generate revenue. These funds allow it to carry out operations that net even more resources, including millions of dollars from Mosul’s banks and American military equipment. It uses these ill-gotten gains to buy the allegiance and support of local groups and tribes.

In return, ISIL institutes order, doling out harsh punishments for violations of Islamic law, while protecting local populations from the Assad and Maliki regimes. It is restoring Sunni pride as well, carrying out successful raids against the Iraqi army and Syrian forces that have seized oil refineries and gas fields. All of this led ISIL leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi on June 30 not only to declare the “Islamic State”, but the restoration of the Islamic Caliphate, an institution formally dissolved 90 years ago.

The Iraqi army has thus far proven incapable of pushing ISIL back, due in no small part to ISIL's military ability and newly captured equipment. But the Iraqi army’s losses are largely due to the Maliki government’s unwillingness to include Sunnis, which is the result of the support it receives from Iran. Kurdish forces, which Washington decided to arm this week, are in a position to push back on ISIL near its northern enclave but will be unable, and most likely unwilling, to deploy in Sunni areas of Iraq.

The same military and political limits hold true in Syria. Despite Assad’s recent battlefield gains in the west, his willingness and ability to operate in Eastern and central Syria, where his forces have sustained heavy losses, remains limited. Assad’s hardline position during the Geneva Peace talks and surrounding his “reelection” last June make it unlikely that the regime will peeling off moderate Sunnis to its side.

Some have advocated inviting Iran to take care of the ISIL problem for the United States as some part of a “grand bargain” over its nuclear program. But those talks are not going so well, and even if they lead to agreement, both Iranian and American officials say the issue of Iran’s nuclear and regional aspirations will remain “stove-piped” for technical and political reasons. Furthermore, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vigorously rejects working with the United States, and he has not given President Rouhani any authority over the Iraq or Syria files, unlike his reluctant assent to nuclear negotiations in pursuit of sanctions relief. Iranian-backed forces also bring little positive to the table: Militant groups backed or trained by the IRGC-Quds Force (the body that orchestrates training of Iranian-backed proxy groups), such as Hezbollah or the National Defense Companies, have had no or very limited ability operating far away from their strategic depth in Iran and Lebanon. Worse, Iran encourages sectarian excesses which drive Sunnis to reluctantly work with ISIL, seeing it as better than Iranian-sponsored death squads. 

The much talked about “moderate Sunnis” come from the same demographic as ISIL and Al Qaeda. But Sunni Arab states lack a “Quds Force-like” organization to train moderate Sunnis. Meanwhile, Sunni Arab society has to some extent supported jihadists in terms of money and men, replicating the low cost tools of the Quds Force in backing extremist Shia factions sans the discipline. These state’s lack of unity of purpose have so far only exacerbated the divisions among the Syrian and Iraq Sunnis.

Syria’s neighbors are also not in a position to root out ISIL, preferring to containwith varying degrees of successthe crisis inside Syria. The most successful thus far has been Jordan, which has policed its border with Syria from the beginning of the conflict while working with the U.S. to covertly support the Syrian rebels. Nevertheless, Jordan has around one million Syrians in the country living outside refugee camps. The threat of terrorist attacks, run by the Assad regime or Sunni extremists, has caused Jordan to thus far shy away from the Obama Administration’s proposed program to more openly train and equip the Syrian opposition. 

Turkey, which has the longest and most open border with Syria, has only recently begun efforts to clamp down on jihadist groups operating from its territory into Syriaespecially following ISIL’s taking of hostages in Turkey’s Mosul consulate. Like Jordan, Ankara does not want to intervene in Syria due to fears of terrorist attacks on its territory and now ironically sees Kurds, its historic adversary, as its best asset against containing ISIL.

Both Lebanon and Iraq, due to internal divisions and incapacity, are unable to intervene in Syria other than through sub-state actors such as Hezbollah, which has simultaneously coordinated with the working Lebanese government to contain spillover from Syria. Israel, other than covert assistance to some groups in the south and treatment of wounded, has also preferred to stay out of Syria in favor of containment.

ISIL’s recent successes, if sustained, risks not only a redrawing of the Sykes-Picot boundaries, but making ISIL and jihadists in general the authentic and authoritative voice for Sunnis in the Middle East. The continued victories of jihadist forces threaten the Arab Gulf Monarchies, particularly Saudi Arabia, which, as guardians of the holy places, have assumed the primary political role in Islam since the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1924. A defeat of jihadist forces at the hands of the Assad and Maliki regimes also risks domestic blowback against Gulf monarchiesindeed some rulers have used the excuse of the power of Salafists and general sympathies for Syria’s Sunni opposition for not cracking down earlier on jihadist financial networks.

Given ISIL’s recent successes, it would be optimistic to think their aspirations are limited to a caliphate between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. ISIL has moved its forces toward the borders with Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and ISIL elements successfully attacked Lebanese Army positions along the frontier with Syria this week, taking prisoners. Meanwhile, analysts and European and American officials say hundreds, if not thousands, of ISIL and Al Qaeda operatives in Syria and the Islamic State are likely planning attacks either back home or elsewhere. These include Muhsin al-Fadhili, former head of Al Qaeda’s Iranian facilitation network; Sanafi al-Nasr, head of Al Qaeda’s Syria “Victory Committee”; Wafa al-Saudi, Al Qaeda’s former head of security for counter intelligence; as well as Al Qaeda founding member Firas al-Suri. Members of Al Qaeda Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) are also reportedly in Syria, indicating a growing opportunity for connectivity, coordination, planning, and synchronization with Jebhat al-Nusra and other jihadists. Taken together with national-based Jihadist units from China, the Caucasus, Libya, Egypt, Sweden, and beyond, the “Islamic State” is already the next Afghanistan or Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas in terms of a durable safe haven and training ground for global Islamic terrorism.1

Given the consolidation of the Islamic State’s gains, and the lack of interest and capacity of its neighbors to uproot the organization in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State is likely to endure absent a more assertive and concerted U.S. policy involving military and political operations. Working with Iran and its clients in the Maliki and Assad governments will not solve the problem, due to both states’ limited military capacities and encouragement of sectarian brutality against Sunnis in both countries. While Iran and its allies may be a natural front on ISIL expansion further afield, empowering Iran and its allies now would be like throwing gasoline on sectarian fire.

If Washington seeks to find the “formula that speaks to the aspirations” of Sunnis outlined in President Obama’s recent New York Times interview, or the “geopolitical equilibrium” between Iran and the Arabs he outlined last autumn, Washington will need to work with allies in Iraq and the Arab Gulf countries to calm tensions and lead Sunnis in Syria and Iraq in a more moderate direction. It will be an uphill struggle: The jihadist narrative that America is waging war on Sunnis post September 11 continues. Many see Obama employing a double-standard in his decision to arm the Kurds and act to prevent a Yezidi “genocide” while refusing for three years to arm Syria’s Sunni-dominated oppositionwho he continues to dismiss as mere “doctors, farmers, (and) pharmacists”and enforce his red line against the Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons against civilians.

These could involve pressure on the Maliki government to be more “inclusive,” supporting a change in that government, and special military operations. The success of that program would be heavily dependent on the degree of cooperation and coordination with Sunni regional allies. The Saudi government, which has been wary of American involvement in Iraq, will have to be convinced that Washington will commit to supporting non-jihadi Sunnis in Iraq and Syria militarily (via training) and politically (vis à vis Iraq and Syria’s Iran-backed governments). Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis, who are worried in a very existential way about working against ISIL, will have to be convinced that such a program carries enough potential to work thus risking their and their families' lives. Fortunately Arab Gulf countries have long-term relations with tribes in the areas ISIL controls and very deep pockets. Instead of relying on them to create a Quds Force-equivalent to train and support Sunni moderates in Syria and Iraq, the U.S. should play that role, working in concert with Arab intelligence agencies to coordinate and streamline their efforts to foster a viable moderate Sunni alternative that will fill the vacuum following any ISIL defeat.  

For Washington, such efforts could help stabilize two weak and effectively disintegrated states. For Arab allies, it would provide an opportunity to help moderate forces check both Sunni extremism and Iranian-dominated governments in Baghdad and Damascus. And for the American people, it would make it much less likely its servicemen would have to invade another Middle Eastern country in the wake of another massive terrorist attack.

Andrew Tabler is Senior Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, author of “Syria’s Collapse: And How Washington Can Stop It” (Foreign Affairs; July/August 2013) and the book In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle with Syria (Lawrence Hill Press: 2011)

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Meet the Kurds, a Historically Oppressed People Who Will Get Their Own State

While Hamas fires rockets, and ISIS beheads unbelievers, the Kurds build the second non-Arab state in the Middle East

For their part the Kurds managed within a few days to take control of the oil-rich Kirkuk region and start administering it. However, in spite of the simultaneity of the Kurdish and ISIS moves, the two entities are far apart from each other in nature, composition, and approach and are now engaging in border warfare. A comparison between the Kurds and ISIS will help define which course the international community might be advised to take in the region that was formerly known as Iraq.


The Kurds in Iraq, who represent some 20 percent of the Iraqi population (6 million out of a population of 30 million), had already begun their state-building and nation-building process by the early 1990s, and by June 2014 they already had their de facto state. While conventional wisdom had it that a Kurdish entity in Iraq would be a source of instability for the entire region, reality on the ground has proved the opposite over the last decade, during which autonomous Kurdistan has proved to be the most stable, prosperous, peaceful, and democratic part of Iraq. By contrast, it was the Sunni-Shia divide that emerged as the major cause of instability for Iraq and the entire Middle East, with its latest incarnation in the war between the Shii government in Baghdad and the Sunni jihadists of ISIS. Accordingly, the declaration of an Islamic state in Syria and Iraq has caused panic among Arab and non-Arab Sunni states such as Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, which are as wary of Iraq turning into ISIS-stan as much as into Shiistan.

By contrast, Kurdistan has played a positive role in the region. While paying the requisite lip service to the cause of Iraqi territorial integrity championed by the United States, many Arab countries as well as Turkey and Iran did not hesitate to turn Kurdistan into a major business and political partner. These states’ pragmatism and realism had told them that the specter of another non-Arab, non-Turkish, and non-Persian entity in the region pales against the real dangers emanating from their Arab and Sunni brethren. Paradoxically enough, the country that went the farthest in embracing the Kurdish entity was also the one that had been the most vociferous against it: Turkey, which has become the midwife for a Kurdish state in Iraq with oil and gas as foundations for a strategic partnership that Turkey seems to see as a stabilizing force on its own borders.

The most extraordinary Turkish move was the deal it cut with Iraqi Kurdistan for allowing the passage through its territories of two independent Kurdish oil pipelines and one gas pipeline that allow the export of oil independently of Baghdad. The 50-year term of this agreement was indeed revolutionary, and all three parties—Turkey, Iraq, and the Kurds—were aware of its far-reaching significance, namely to help define a pathway by which Kurdish economic independence could metamorphose into political independence. Baghdad’s attempts to stop Turkey from putting this project into effect were to no avail: The final blow came when the Kurds started last month to sell oil independently. It might not be mere coincidence that Turkey approved this Kurdish move almost simultaneously with the Kurdish takeover of Kirkuk. Indeed, according to an article by Soner Cagaptay published in al-Majalla in July, Turkey even went so far as to encourage the Kurds to take control of the oil capital.

History has taught us that when certain dynamics are set in motion it is very difficult to stop them: The Kurdish thrust toward independence seems to be a case in point in spite of the latest setback, which will be discussed below. The changing approach among Middle East experts and world media regarding such a possibility is also worth noting. Whereas for the greater part of the 20th century the Kurdish issue was  totally eclipsed by the Palestinian problem, at the turn of the 21st century things have changed, and there is now an explosion of studies and reports on the Kurds many of which express sympathy with the idea of an independent Kurdistan. This new approach is extremely important for encouraging Kurdish politicians to go the extra mile while also offering legitimacy to such a move if and when it takes place.

The international community too is moving slowly but surely toward accepting the reality of an independent Kurdish state. According to a report published by the Kurdish outlet Rudaw in July of this year, the United States, France, Italy, the United Kingdom, Turkey, Jordan, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates were among the countries that have told Kurdish officials they would show understanding in case the Kurds declare independence. In a recent development the European Parliament also gave a tacit nod to Kurdish independence. The Kurds’ inching toward independence received a further boost in early July when regional President Massoud Barzani called for a referendum on Kurdish independence to take place in the coming months.

However, the sudden attacks by ISIS, which started on Aug. 3, appeared to have checked Kurdish momentum. The Kurds now had to cope with multiple challenges: fighting ISIS with inferior military equipment along their new common 1,035-km-long border; struggling with Baghdad over various political, economic, and strategic issues; coping with an economic embargo imposed by Baghdad because of the oil dispute; and accommodating hundreds of thousands of Christian, Yezidi, Kurdish, and even Muslim Arab refugees fleeing nearby territories held by ISIS. Still this setback may turn to be another opportunity for strengthening Kurdish solidarity and national feelings and getting outside support. The U.S. bombings of the ISIS forces while raising Kurdish morale also sent home the message that if worse came to worst and Iraq cannot remain united the United States might give the green light to a Kurdish state.

At this point it is impossible to know if these developments have postponed or accelerated the goal of Kurdish independence. One thing is certain: With the Iraqi state having lost its common unofficial borders with Kurdistan when it relinquished them to ISIS, the world will now be better off if there is a strong Kurdish state to contain the jihadist danger, which has gone from strength to strength over the past six months. All in all, the war that the Kurds are conducting now against ISIS might turn to be their war of independence even as it also saves the region from falling even deeper into chaos and bloodshed.


How should Israelis and Jews approach the idea of an independent Kurdish state? I argue that if there is one state that should support the idea of an independent Kurdistan in Iraq it is Israel, for various moral, political, economic, and strategic reasons. Morally speaking, the Kurds of Iraq were oppressed and persecuted by all Iraqi governments, culminating in the genocide campaign launched against them by Saddam Hussein at the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988. No less than 180,000 Kurds perished in that campaign for the sole reason of being non-Arabs and for seeking to preserve their different identity and their right to self-determination. It is therefore only natural for Israel, whose founders had experienced similar traumatic experiences, to lend its support to a Kurdish state.

Indeed, the affinities between these two small non-Arab nations, both of which have been denied the legitimacy to have a state in a region that the Arabs define as belonging solely to them, go a long way back. These relations, which started in the 1960s and have gone on intermittently until today, have been advantageous for both parties. The Kurds gained military, technological, and humanitarian support while Israel gained access to intelligence. The Kurds also helped Jews who were fleeing from Iraq. However, both parties chose to keep these ties secret because of the expected negative reaction of the surrounding countries.

On the political level, the idea of another non-Arab state coming into existence in the Middle East sends a powerful message to the world and the people of the region that the right to statehood should not be the prerogative of Arabs, Turks, and Persians alone. Just as the international community has been outspoken in its support for a Palestinian state, the same yardstick should be applied to the Kurds. Interestingly, Palestinians do not accept this truism. Rather than showing solidarity with the Kurds, Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian Authority, who is acting relentlessly for a Palestinian state, recently came out against the Kurds’ right to establish a state of their own. Yet the Kurdish entity has already proved its viability much more than the Palestinian entity ever has.

No less important for Israel is the strategic benefit of a Kurdish state that is stable, prosperous, and more secular and democratic than surrounding countries, and that may act as a bulwark against the terrorist, radical, and destabilizing forces that are becoming rampant in the region. The emergence of ISIS in Iraq, if not contained, may endanger Israel as well.

With regard to the possible stance of a Kurdish state toward Israel one may safely assume that it will be friendly to the Jewish state. For one thing, the Kurds will need the sympathy and support of another non-Arab state in the international arena. For another, the Kurds have never been in conflict with Israel nor were they exposed to anti-Israeli or anti-Jewish indoctrination, nor do they harbor anti-Israeli feelings the way the Arab population does. Indeed, rarely did we hear vitriolic attacks or anti-Israeli propaganda from their leaders or from the Kurdish population at large. In a recent opinion poll that asked Kurds which country could be trusted to support Kurdish independence, 56.3 percent said Israel, 8.2 percent Turkey, and 4 percent the United States.


Against this background one wonders why is it that until very recently Israel did not come out publicly in support of the Kurds. The most pertinent explanation is that the Kurds themselves were wary of such an Israeli move because they feared being accused of betraying Iraq and the Arab cause. Nor was Israel willing to put itself at loggerheads with the United States, which has been consistently and systematically against the establishment of a Kurdish state while pursuing the elusive goal of a unified Iraq. Israel had also to take into consideration the reaction of the Arab world, which was filled with conspiracy theories regarding the role of the so-called “Zionist entity” in the breakup of Arab states and the formation of new statelets on their debris. Israel was also very eager not to antagonize Turkey, which during the 1990s was the Kurds’ nemesis and Israel’s best ally.

Due to the sea-changes in the region all these considerations have undergone paradigmatic change. Although hard facts are missing one may assume that as the Kurdish leadership was accelerating its efforts for declaring independence it had itself approached Israeli leaders to grant their public support to such a move, which might be of crucial importance vis-à-vis the United States. This may explain the fact that the three most important Israeli leaders, namely Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, former President Shimon Peres, and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman came out publicly last June almost in tandem to support the establishment of a Kurdish state. The most outspoken was Netanyahu who declared: “We need to support the Kurdish aspiration for independence. They deserve it.”

These declarations seem also to signal that Israel and the United States are no longer on opposing poles regarding the Kurdistan project especially after the blitzkrieg of ISIS and the U.S. realization that Kurdistan could be an important factor for containing the jihadist onslaught and maybe even saving Baghdad. In a talk at the end of June at the Washington Institute, Falah Mustafa Bakir, the de facto Kurdish foreign minister, maintained that the Kurds are seeing from the United States “a growing recognition of Iraq’s new reality, and a corresponding change in attitudes toward the Kurdish past and future.” For his part, President Barzani stated to Rudaw on July 6, 2014, that the United States would not “block Kurdish independence.” Indeed, President Barack Obama’s New York Times interview with Thomas L. Friedman last week signaled a turning point in the American approach toward this Kurdish entity.

With regard to Arab countries, as much as they blame Israel for promoting the breakup of Arab countries, the truth is that the collapse of such states as Sudan, Libya, Syria, or Iraq was home-made. Similarly, while blaming “Zionists” for encouraging the formation of what some refer to as a “second Israel,” many of the Arab countries have developed strong ties with the Kurdish entity. A Kurdish official, Adnan Mufti, stated that these countries would “accept the reality of a Kurdish state.” So, the formation of a “second Israel” will, in a way, take the onus from the first one and form a bulwark against radical and destabilizing forces in the region emanating either from states like Iran or terrorist organizations like ISIS or Hamas.

As for Turkey the assumption was that Israeli ties with the Kurds would be fatal for its relations with Ankara. As it turned out it was the Palestinian problem and Turkey’s support for the terrorist organization Hamas that was the cause for a major rupture. Nor can Ankara lecture Israel on ties with the Kurds when unlike Hamas they are pursuing the goal of statehood peacefully. Moreover, Turkey’s own U-turn vis-à-vis the Kurdistan Regional Government and the emergence of potential common economic interests, namely the need to find buyers for Kurdish oil, may change the picture on the Turkish side. When last June Baghdad attempted to prevent Turkey and the Kurds from selling oil independently from the Iraqi central government Israel came to their aid by buying Kurdish oil. If it does not remain episodic, such a move may form a backbone for a triangular cooperation among Turkey, Israel, and the Kurds, since Israel, which is not at a risk of litigation by Baghdad, may thus solve acute problems for the Turkish-Kurdish partnership while itself benefiting from steady flow of oil. And even if not there are many common economic interests that can be developed bilaterally between Israel and the Kurds.

Iraq today is a failed state. The more time passes the more each of the three main constituencies—Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds—reinforce their unique identity and pursue their own very different political agendas, and no external force, not even the United States, can keep them together. In such circumstances, if and when Kurdistan declares independence, Israel should have no dilemma in siding with a moderate, tolerant, pro-Western, and stable entity against a hostile ISIS-stan and Shiistan. Even though Kurdistan might not forge a formal alliance with Israel, its very existence could stem the jihadist and extremist storms that are blowing across the Middle East and threatening to tear it apart.

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