Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques NeriahThe writer, a special Middle East analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and deputy head for assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.
Kurdistan stretches across an area of Southwest Asia that includes Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria. The Kurdish population in the region is estimated at 26 to 34 million, with another one or two million living in the Kurdish diaspora.
Today the Kurds are the largest national grouping without a state of their own. Current political developments in the Middle East have set the stage for the Kurds realizing their right of self-determination.
For nearly two decades, Iraq has been the focal point of Kurdish efforts, yet now Syria is a new candidate for Kurdish political activity. After largely sitting on the sidelines of the Syrian revolution, political groups from Syria's Kurdish minority in the northeastern region appear to have moved decisively to claim control of Kurdish-populated towns along the Syrian-Turkish border.
The Free Kurdish Army was formed from the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a group with historical links to the Kurdistan Workers' Party or PKK, which is regarded by both Turkey and the U.S. as a terrorist organization fighting the Turkish government for Kurdish autonomy. Turkish leaders have issued threats against the Syrian Kurds, should their area become a safe haven for the PKK.
Kurdistan is a potential land bridge for many of the conflicts erupting in this part of the region. It provides a ground route for Iraqi Kurdistan to supply the Syrian Kurds as they seek greater autonomy from Damascus. But its use will depend on which power dominates the tri-border area between Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, for this area could equally provide Iran with a corridor for moving supplies to its Syrian surrogates and even to Hizbullah in Lebanon.
Given this geo-strategic situation, there have been rising military tensions between the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) of Northern Iraq and the Iraqi central government in Baghdad. For example, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is backed by Iran, decided to deploy Iraqi Army units in the area connecting Iraqi Kurdistan to the Kurdish areas of Syria, thereby giving Baghdad the ability to choke off KRG supplies to the Syrian Kurdish revolt. KRG President Massoud Barzani protested against al-Maliki's move and held this strategic area with his Kurdish Peshmerga units instead.
Israel will need to treat the changing Kurdish situation carefully, distinguishing between the situations of Turkey, Syria, and Iraq.
The establishment of a viable, independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq could be a geopolitically positive development for Israel. Historical justice would dictate that, with 22 Arab states in the Middle East, the 35 million Kurds deserve at least one sovereign state of their own.