Why Isn’t Israel Arming Iraq’s Kurds?
Military aid comes with a high price
In a predictable world, Israel and Iraqi Kurdistan would be the closest allies. However, the Middle East is not predictable, and the Israelis have refrained from sending weapons to help the Kurds’ war with the Islamic State.
What’s stopping them? Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu believes that an independent Kurdistan would be a good thing since it would, he reasons, bolster an alliance of moderates across the volatile Middle East.
The Kurds are “a nation of fighters [who] have proved political commitment and are worthy of independence,” Netanyahu told a Tel Aviv think tank in 2014.
In August, the Financial Times revealed that 77 percent Israel’s oil supply originates from Iraq’s Kurdish region, which flows out to middlemen, and which Israel then buys from the international market. These deals are opaque, and neither government acknowledges the trade openly. Additionally, Israeli aid agencies have provided humanitarian support to displaced Christians and Yazidis in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Historically, Israel and Iraqi Kurdistan have shared mutual interests. In the 1960s and the 1970s, Israel, the United States and Iran covertly supported a Kurdish revolt – led by Mustafa Barzani, father of current Iraqi Kurdish president Masoud – against Baghdad.
That support evaporated after the Shah opted to make a deal with Iraq in 1975. The Ba’athists crushed the Kurdish rebellion shortly thereafter.
Israel had its reasons for aiding Kurdish guerrillas. Iraq sent expeditionary forces to aid Arab armies in prior wars with Israel, and Israel saw a Kurdish insurgency as a means to keep the Iraqi army focused inward.
In 2006, the BBC reported that Israeli mercenaries subcontracted to two Swiss-registered companies trained Kurdish fighters in weapons tactics two years prior. So Israeli support is not unprecedented.
But that brings us back to weapons. Or rather, the lack of them.
The United States doesn’t supply weapons directly to Iraq’s Kurds, either — but that owes to Washington’s “one Iraq” policy which directs U.S. arms shipments through the Iraqi central government. Israel, however, openly endorses Kurdish statehood. And Germany directly supplies the Kurds with much-needed rifles and anti-tank missiles.
Tellingly, when Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on Israel in 1973, Tel Aviv asked Barzani to launch an offensive against the Iraqi government. Barzani refused after he consulted with Tehran and Washington, both of which feared the Kurds would be wiped out.
In other words, the biggest obstacle to greater cooperation is the fact that Iraqi Kurdistan is an enclave surrounded by larger powers. In a region where Israel is widely hated, military support is far too risky.
Also risky? Iraqi Kurdistan openly confronting Baghdad. Turkey and Iran fear their own Kurdish minorities would opt to join their Iraqi cousins if they openly declared their independence. And if Israel began providing weapons? That would be some dangerous, destabilizing business.
None of this is new to the Kurds. In the 1960s and 1970s, Iraqi Kurdistan was pejoratively known in the region as “the second Israel.” The enclave’s leaders are understandably nervous about any allegations of Israeli support.
However, others in the region no longer care about their neighbors’ sensitivities. In January, a Yazidi officer made an open plea for Israeli weapons, adding that both the Yazidis and Israelis share a common enemy. The Yazidis live under Kurdish protection and have made parallels between the Islamic State’s genocidal ambitions and Nazi Germany.
“[The Islamic State] have already killed many of us,” Lt. Col. Lukman Ibrahim told Al Monitor. “What do we have to fear?”
Lukman wasn’t wrong. But that shows how in the Middle East, words — not actions — are a very weak currency indeed.