No, the Israeli Air Force Won’t Race to Iraqi Kurdistan’s Rescue
The theory is making the rounds after Kurds voted for independence
Here in Iraq’s Kurdish autonomous region, a friend recently overheard some of his countrymen discussing the prospect of an independent Iraqi Kurdistan coming under attack from Baghdad or its neighbors. They dismissed this prospect out of hand, very matter-of-factly, by insisting that the Israeli Air Force would come to defend the region.
The idea of an outside power coming in to rescue the Kurds from predatory powers is not unprecedented. Kurds fled their homes en masse to neighboring countries in the immediate aftermath of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when Saddam Hussein’s helicopter gunships targeted civilians in the region. This was only a few years after the Iraqi military murdered 50,000-100,000 Kurds during the Anfal genocide.
Only the imposition of a U.S.-led no-fly zone enabled Kurds to return home, less fearful that Saddam’s air force would massacre them again.
Given this history, and Israel’s soft backing of Kurdish independence, it’s understandable why some Kurds are hopeful that Israeli warplanes would fly to the rescue if the region came under attack.
But this is unrealistic, with fake news websites further amplifying far-fetched theories of an Israeli-Kurdish military alliance. One website, citing completely unsubstantiated sources, claimed that 200 Kurdish pilots were undergoing training by “both Israel and South Africa for war against Baghdad.”
“As we speak,” the site went on to claim, “Kurdistan, within Iraq, is becoming an Israeli armed camp. Air defense weapons, long range artillery, helicopters and combat aircraft moving to Erbil for a wider war against Iraq and Iran.”
The article also claims that American warplanes flown by Israeli pilots are bombing Hezbollah in neighboring Syria. These claims are bizarre, unfounded and highly implausible.
For one, if Israel were to move warplanes or other military assets to Erbil, it would still need a large logistical backbone. During the 2006 war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Israeli Army depleted large stockpiles of its munitions and even needed to tap into U.S. stockpiles of ammunition based in Israel itself.
Israel would be hard pressed to sustain an air campaign 500 miles away.
Furthermore, an influx of heavy weapons into Kurdistan, especially the basing of fighter jets at Erbil International Airport, would certainly not go unnoticed. Baghdad controls all flights going into Erbil, and in the past has prevented cargo planes from landing there.
The United States has always been hesitant about establishing a permanent base in Kurdistan, though many Kurds would welcome such a move. For the war against Islamic State, the U.S. military based AH-64 Apache attack helicopters at Erbil along with Black Hawks and Chinooks. How long these helicopters will remain is unclear.
As a result of the Baghdad-imposed flight ban, only the U.S.-led coalition and domestic Iraqi Airways planes fly from the Kurdish capital’s airport.
Kurds were thankful for Israeli leaders voicing their support to the referendum, the only government which has done so. Many displayed — often makeshift — Israeli flags alongside Kurdish flags during independence referendum rallies last month.
Nevertheless, on the day of that referendum, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told government officials not to comment on it given the bellicose reaction of the Turkish government, with which Israel is normalizing relations following the fallout from the May 2010 Mavi Mamara raid.
Even years before this referendum, speculation abounded that Israel hoped to use Iraqi Kurdistan as a front against Iran — as Iran uses Hezbollah in Lebanon to threaten the Jewish state.
To be sure, Israel could support the Kurds and their Peshmerga troops against Iran. But this has never come to be, and is unrealistic for numerous reasons. As David Patrikarakos pointed out last month in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, while Kurdistan cannot counter Iran by force as Hezbollah does against Israel, “it could do even better.”
“Contrary to Hezbollah, the Kurds are Western allies with considerable (legitimate) financial clout — they control one third of Iraq’s oil — combined with their ability to create large reserves of goodwill in Western capitals, which, were they to achieve independence, would translate into effective diplomatic capabilities,” he elaborated.
“For these reasons they can help to check Iran’s growing influence across the Middle East.”
While far and away the most pro-American country in the Middle East, Iraqi Kurdistan has always tried to avoid getting entangled in regional conflicts. Iraqi Kurdistan is in a precarious geographical position and lacks access to the sea — and has no air force. Iraqi Kurdistan instead prefers to maintain cordial relations with its neighbors, and invariably the only reason it goes to war is if it comes under attack or is invaded.
During the summer, a Saudi newspaper asked Iraqi Kurdistan’s Pres. Masoud Barzani how he felt about Iran’s growing power in Baghdad and Damascus, and whether the Iranians could try and take over Erbil. Barzani simply responded that Kurdistan does “not want to clash or enter a conflict with Iran” before adding that he would not permit Kurdistan to “collapse” or fall under Iranian control all the same.
Such a defensive posture and balancing of relations has long proven essential for Kurdish survival in the volatile region. Risking a major war with Iran by hosting the Israeli military on its soil would completely upend this delicate balance and possibly imperil that vulnerable region.