Israeli involvement with the Kurds is not a new phenomenon. In its search for non-Arab allies in the region, Israel has supported Kurdish militancy in Iraq since the 1960s. In 1980, Israeli premier Menachem Begin publicly acknowledged that besides humanitarian aid, Israel had secretly provided military aid to Kurds in the form of weapons and advisers. Later on, that relationship was kept low profile due to Washington's alliances in the region; first with Iran during the Shah's monarchy, and then with Saddam Hussein's Iraq when he fought Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's Iran. Israel's partnership with Turkey that was founded mainly to counter threats from Iran, Syria and Iraq, was also a factor.
Israel and the Kurds also share a common bond through the Kurdish Jews in Israel, who number close to 50,000. Prominent among them is Itzhak Mordechai, an Iraqi Kurd who was defense minister during Benjamin Netanyahu's last term as prime minister.
Israeli-Kurd relationships soured a bit in February of 1999, when the Kurds accused the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad of providing information that led to the arrest of Turkish Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan in Kenya. Kurdish protestors attacked the Israeli embassy in Berlin, resulting in the shooting deaths of three protestors by Israeli security forces. In an unprecedented public denial, the then Mossad chief Efraim Halevy dissociated Israel from Ocalan's capture. Despite such bumps and its alliance with Turkey, Israel succeeded in keeping its relationship with the Iraqi Kurds intact, by keeping a safe distance from the PKK, which is primarily a Turkish Kurd entity, and not becoming a party to the bloody infighting between the various Turkish and Iraqi Kurdish groups.
However, Israel does have a favorite - the Barzani family-dominated Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), whose current head, Massoud Barzani, inherited the mantle from his father, the legendary Mullah Mustafa Barzani. Israeli television has in the past broadcast photographs from the 1960s showing father Barzani embracing the then Israeli defense minister Moshe Dayan. In alliance with its erstwhile rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party, the KDP in post-Saddam Iraq commands the largest and most formidable of the Iraqi militias, the Peshmerga, with estimates of anywhere from 50,000 to 75,000 battle-hardened fighters. In contrast, the next in line of militias is the Iranian-sponsored Shi'ite political party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution (SCIRI), with no more than 15,000 fighters.
So why in the post-Saddam Iraq has Israel chosen to dramatically escalate the nature of its involvement with Kurdish militants, and in so doing, risk its strategic alliance with Turkey, while confirming its activities on record through individuals like Patrick Clawson (one of the named sources in Seymour Hersh's expose in the New Yorker), known to have close ties with the Israeli government?
According to Hersh's report, "hundreds" of undercover Israeli Defense Force intelligence officers and Mossad agents have reestablished cooperation with Kurdish militiamen in northern Iraq, with the aim of launching cells that might yield new intelligence on Iran's nuclear program. Israeli operatives are also said to be providing an ancillary role to the Kurds and are aiding Kurdish elements in northern Syria. Kurdish riots and the seeds of a minor rebellion in northern Syria have recently rocked Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime.
A questionable pretext
Quoting Clawson, the Hersh article presents a pair of weak justifications for Israeli intervention in Iraq. The first one is the fear of Iranian nuclear ambitions. This information is hardly new. The latest revelations about the Iranian nuclear program were in fact provided by an Iranian dissident group. Furthermore, Iran is under constant US satellite surveillance and sustained political pressure by the US, the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency and European powers to roll back its nuclear efforts. It is therefore doubtful as to what quality or value the Israelis can add to such a formidable lineup.
The second motivation that the article talks about is the urgent need for Israel to move on Iraq as a national security imperative to counter the growing Iranian influence. A quick analysis, however, reveals such urgency to be exaggerated, and any Israeli surprise at the growing Iranian footprint in Iraq to be unconvincing. One of the most predictable outcomes of the Iraq conflict was the growth in Iranian influence in that country. Besides a 1,500 kilometer border, the two neighboring Shi'ite-majority nations share deep historical and religious bonds making it almost impossible for the US to prevent the ascent of Iranian-backed groups without inviting a full-scale Shi'ite rebellion in Iraq. Realizing this, American officials moved quickly during pre-war days to co-opt Iran-backed groups such as the SCIRI, with tacit Iranian approval.
Would it not be naive to expect that Washington would create a situation hospitable for growth in clout of its Iranian adversary in a region key to American interests, and thereby limit its own options?
To begin to answer the preceding questions, we need to take a look at a now famous policy paper: "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm". This neo-conservative-authored paper presented in 1996 to the then Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered a bold strategy to provide "the nation [Israel] the room to engage every possible energy in rebuilding Zionism", and strengthen and increase its influence in the Middle East. "Our claim to the land - to which we have clung for hope for 2000 years - is legitimate and noble," the authors proclaimed. "Israel will not only contain its foes; it will transcend them" through means including "reestablishing the principle of preemption, rather than retaliation alone".
The paper emphasized that Israel needed to enhance its strategic position independent of the US, in order to deny the US any leverage it may want to exercise on Israel to maintain stability in the region under the "peace process". The paper betrays a high degree of discomfort regarding US influence over Israel and suggests ways to actively neutralize it. What is most surprising are the names of its authors that comprise past and present US civilian policy-makers, including ex-chairman of the Defense Policy Board Richard Perle, present Under Secretary of Defense Douglas Feith, and Vice President Dick Cheney's adviser for Middle East Affairs, David Wurmser. How individuals with such openly stated positions preferring Israeli interests over those of the US became influential members of the US government is quite mystifying.
The paper bemoans the status quo where Israel is asked to follow European and American prescriptions for peace and stability, and proposes that a key ingredient of the "US-Israeli partnership" must be "mutuality" and that Israel must position itself to be the protector of the "West's security" in the Middle East rather than being a junior partner. Such strategic co-dependence, specifically between Israel and the US, and to a general degree between Israel and Western powers, would imply dismissing the strategic status quo. Thus, to achieve a "clean break", the security map of the Middle East would have to be significantly re-built to assign Israel an apex role, rather than being just a party to territorial disputes with its neighbors and being treated as another ally, albeit a strong one, along with Washington's oil-allies in the region.
The removal of Saddam Hussein, enunciated to be a key goal in "Clean Break", was to be the first phase of this new strategy of independence through co-dependence. As has been discussed earlier (see Asia Times Online, All going according to plan? , May 12), under the pretext of regime change, the US quite intentionally annihilated the Iraqi state and its military forces, the largest in the Arab world. In his article titled "Beyond Fallujah: A Year With the Iraqi Resistance" in the June issue of Harper's Magazine, Patrick Graham, a freelance journalist, quotes a resistance fighter's account of looting the Iraqi army's weapons caches. "They [American soldiers] almost gave us the weapons. They watched us taking RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] and other weapons," he continued, "They thought we were destroying the Iraqi army."
An opening is created
The strategic space created from the ruins of the Iraqi state and its pillars offers immense opportunities by employing persecuted minorities as proxies that can provide a strong foothold in a pivotal oil-rich nation hundreds of miles away from Israel. Furthermore, the Kurdish beachhead in Iraq would serve to project influence in key adversaries such as Iran and Syria.
In "A Clean Break", the authors called for signaling to the Syrians that their "territory is not immune" to attacks "by Israeli proxy forces". Kurdish unrest in Syria has been quite rare. In early March of this year, northeastern Syria broke out in violent protests that eventually reached the capital Damascus. The Syrians were caught completely off guard. The riots lasted for days and left scores of people dead before being brought under control.
In a war viewed by the neo-conservatives as an unavoidable course of action for protecting American interests, the growth in Iranian influence was an inevitable consequence. But Iranian reach would be dangerous only if it spread beyond southern Iraq and a unified Iraq emerged. With uncertainty surrounding the future of high levels of US troops in Iraq, the Israeli-backed Peshmerga is the ideal proxy as a powerful rival to the Iranian-inspired Shi'ite ascendancy in Iraq. With their superior numbers, excellent training and materiel, thanks to the US and Israel, the Peshmerga can set the terms for the Iraqi federation or for its disintegration. Furthermore, the Kurds are completely dependent on extra-regional players due to their isolation in the area. The current situation in Iraq points to a nominal sovereign existing in the shadow of armed militias competing for power, with the most powerful of the militias aligned with the occupying forces. The Peshmerga number more than the proposed Iraqi Security Forces (an entity that closely resembles a highly equipped police force rather than a proper military), and are being trained by elite and highly secret Israeli commandos, the Mistaravim according to Hersh's Central Intelligence Agency sources.
To see these developments as just attempts in securing cheap oil (Israel relies on expensive Western imports due to the Arab boycott), would be to underestimate the resultant benefits to Israel from the situation. Without engaging its military directly, the Israelis have made themselves a major power-broker in the region and a party to internal stability of important regional states. Unable to confront the only regional nuclear power and the military of its principal sponsor providing strategic cover in Iraq, Israel's foes in the vicinity must acknowledge that they need to deal with Israel in new ways and be ready to offer concessions if need be.
A significant threat, albeit a remote one, emanates from a possible strategic accommodation between Iran and Saudi Arabia regarding Iraq and the future of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. But such a scenario seems less and less likely. The present leadership of Saudi Arabia is battling with a series of high-impact acts of violence in areas key to oil production. Furthermore, a carefully crafted ambiguity surrounds Saudi Arabia's role in America's wider regional ambitions, which when combined with recent signaling from the US and the United Kingdom, is causing great alarm in Riyadh.
The spate of high profile bombings in Iraq, including the one that killed the UN representative for Iraq and another that killed Ayatollah Baqir Hakim, head of the Iran-backed SCIRI militia, must now be viewed in the light of this new information.
A UN presence in Iraq would have led to an early rehabilitation of a federal Iraqi state, something that would have led to the disarming of the Kurdish militias, thereby denying a major source of influence to Israel in the region. By ramping up armed proxies devoted to a crypto-secessionist struggle and leaking its support for them, Israel has delivered a masterstroke of strategic foresight. It clearly knows that the creation of a Kurdish republic in Iraq, let alone a greater Kurdistan, is not viable for several reasons.
Some of the crucial factors include the religious and ethnic diversity of Iraqi Kurds themselves (though mutually intelligible, Iraqi Kurds speak two different languages and are religiously quite mixed), lack of access to natural resources, recent history of bloody strife within the Kurdish parties, and their autonomy posing an existential threat to the Turkish state.
Nevertheless, by its plausibly deniable support for Kurdish militias, Israel has declared to the regional power centers that it is an indispensable power broker in the future stability of the greater Middle East. Israel can manage its alliance with Turkey as the Turks are mainly concerned with degrading the PKK and denying it a safe haven in northern Iraq. Iran is gearing for a proxy war with Israel in Iraq, but with the presence of US forces has to work in a far stricter environment than it had in southern Lebanon. Of all the three, Syria seems to be in the worst position, with the least economic and political clout and unable to turn up the heat in Lebanon without Iran's help; an Iran that is engaged on multiple fronts in Iraq and Afghanistan, apart from its nuclear woes. The road to Iraq's future therefore, and by extension that of the "New Middle East", now has a detour through Tel Aviv.