- By Rhys DubinRhys Dubin is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Before coming to FP, he worked for The Daily Star in Beirut covering defense, security, and Lebanese politics. His previous work and research includes time spent in Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, and Tunisia.
Iraqi Kurdistan’s quest for independence hasn’t gotten much international support so far. But on Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made growing Israeli backing for an independent Kurdistan official, turning his government into Erbil’s lone pillar of support.
Israel “supports the legitimate efforts of the Kurdish people to achieve their own state,” the prime minister’s office said in a statement Wednesday. A host of other senior Israeli officials, including cabinet ministers and a top general, have also recently voiced support for Iraqi Kurdistan’s Sept. 25 independence vote.
Though the referendum will not be legally binding, supporters hope that it will bolster Erbil’s hand in any future negotiations with the central government. Announced in June, the vote is the culmination of years of escalating tension between Erbil and Baghdad over territory, oil revenues, and military supremacy.
For Israel, supporting an independent Kurdistan makes plenty of sense: It’s spent years courting non-Arab allies in the region, and Iraqi Kurds have over the last decade carved out a reputation as tough fighters. This week, a top Israeli general called growing Kurdish identity “the only positive development concerning the destiny of the Middle East,” according to Turkey’s Daily Sabah.
But the Kurdish referendum has spooked nearly everybody else — including countries who’ve worked hand-in-glove with the semiautonomous northern Iraqi region, such as Germany, Turkey and the United States.
During a visit with Kurdish Regional Government President Masoud Barzani in August, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis urged him to emphasize the fight against the Islamic State, and not let other issues distract from that goal.
“Our point right now is to stay focused like a laser beam on the defeat of ISIS,” Mattis told reporters in Erbil.
European Union and Turkish officials have similarly urged the Kurdish government not to hold the referendum. The EU fears the referendum could further destabilize Iraq, while Turkey, which has a sizeable Kurdish population, sees an independent Kurdish state in Iraq as a potential Pandora’s box that could further unsettle its own Kurdish minorities. (Fears of Kurdish irredentism have fueled Turkish intervention across the border in Syria, too).
In contrast, Israel has maintained covert military, intelligence, and business relationships with Kurdish communities in Iraq since the 1960s — primarily as a buffer against its Arab adversaries throughout the region.
“This was based on an old policy that Israel had called the ‘periphery policy,’” Natan Sachs, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution told Foreign Policy. “Since Israel faced hostility from the Arab world, it would seek non-Arab allies in the region. The Kurds were part of this,” he said.
That dynamic has continued on to the present day, Sachs says, though it has grown increasingly complex as Israel’s relationships with various regional powers have improved over the years.
Turkey plays a unique role in this situation.
Though relations between the two countries have improved recently — after the 2008-9 conflict in the Gaza Strip strained the relationship and a 2010 Israeli attack on a Turkish aid flotilla to the enclave furthered the rift — they are still rocky and unpredictable.
Now, Netanyahu finds himself balancing his country’s relationship between the two sides. Israel therefore feels like it has less to lose in potentially angering Ankara.
“Before, Israel wouldn’t have done this [endorse the referendum], or at least they would have been more careful about Turkish opinion,” Sachs said. “Now, while relations have returned to a normal posture, there’s no expectation of warmth.”
Both the Israeli and Iraqi Embassies in Washington and the Kurdistan Regional Government representation in the United States were unavailable for immediate comment.
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