Israel has been focused more on events nearer-by than the wars in Syria and Iraq. However, it has not been lost on many that Israel will need to continue developing relationships with groups in these two countries, especially as the security challenges there move closer to Israel’s borders. ISIS is pressing offensive operations in southern Syria and recruiting rebel factions defecting from Al-Qaeda and the number of other rebel coalitions fighting Damascus. On the other side of the theater, ISIS is also pressing Kurdistan.
“There are various entities and organizations that represent the Kurds in different parts of the Middle East,” says Ksenia Svetlova, newly elected MK for the Zionist Union and an expert on Arab and Kurdish affairs. “The relations with Iraqi Kurdistan are very important, but so are the relations with the Syrian Kurds who are now struggling courageously against both ISIS and Assad's regime. The Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria (headed by Dr. Sherkoh Abbas) is one of those representative Kurdish bodies that are eager to establish relations with our country.”
Arutz Sheva spoke with Abbas recently, who hinted that Israel indeed has an opportunity to expand its relationship with Kurds in Iraq and in Syria.
“I received warm congratulations from this body upon my election to Knesset,” says Svetlova, “and I will certainly do my best to further promote the relations between Israel and the Kurds.”
Iraqi Kurdistan has been struggling to balance its war efforts against ISIS with its own interests in independence. While the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) is allied to the central government in Baghdad in ways it has not been in the past, and while Kurdish leaders have met with Iranian military officials to coordinate strategy, Erbil (capital of the KRG) has been extraordinarily careful not to allow too much Iranian influence over the war.
Last week, it was reported Kurdish police had arrested the head of a Yazidi militia for accepting financial aid and arms from Iranian-sponsored Shiite militias in the fight against ISIS. It was reported as a major political risk on Erbil’s part, showing how important it was to keep Iran as distant as possible. With all that considered, would Israel benefit from being more public about whatever connections it has with the Kurds, especially in terms of security?
“I believe that different conditions and terms apply to different situations. Everything should be done with the consent of both parties – this is clear – and we definitely don't want to hurt our friends anywhere if the conditions for loud announcements are not ripe yet.”
The notion of relations with Israel might have widespread support among Kurds, but there is still strategic value in maintaining secrecy. Too overt an alliance might scare the Iranians off too much, especially at a time the United States is being accused of short-changing weapons shipments because of Baghdad’s objections. Iran’s influence over Iraq is therefore critical to getting more supplies (that Israel simply does not have access to).
"The Kurds in Iraq strive to achieve independence but would like to avoid a direct clash with such a serious regional power like Iran," Svetlova said last year in an editorial.
“I believe that Israel should be more outspoken about its support of the struggle that the Kurds are now waging on behalf of all humanity against ISIS, whether we are talking about Syria or Iraq.”
“As for diplomatic relations and treaties - sometimes these are timely matters, the vivid example is Jordan. There were ties between Israel and Jordan for decades, but the peace treaty and the establishment of the relations only came in 1994.”
When asked if the Kurds were making the effort to expand those ties unilaterally with last year’s Kurdish oil shipment to Israel despite objections from Baghdad, Svetlova first says she does believe economic ties are blossoming.
“As far as I know, the volume of commercial activity between Israel and Iraqi Kurdistan is constantly growing.”
Svetlova emphasizes though that it will depend not merely on the interference of players like Turkey or Iran that determine if Israel can expand its economic ties with Erbil, but the strategic confrontation the KRG has with ISIS.
“Whether this trend will continue or now depends not only on Israeli or Kurdish officials, but also of the regional environment, such as the state of affairs in northern Iraq and the ability to block the ISIS and to reconquer Mosul and other cities held by the extremists right now.”