For the past few months, Americans like myself have watched in horror and disappointment as the evil known as Islamic State advanced across Iraq and Syria while our president hesitated. Citizens once liberated by our soldiers are now being tortured, raped and murdered in brutal acts of savagery. After seeing substantial drops in the polls and with growing public pressure to do more, President Obama finally authorized limited airstrikes first in Iraq and more recently in Syria. Local observers in Syria, though, say that airstrikes there have been largely symbolic and have had minimal impact upon the ability of Islamic State to operate and advance. All the while, President Obama has pledged not to commit American ground troops while at the same time refusing to arm the Kurds who have proven to be the most effective fighting force against Islamic State militants when properly equipped. In Iraq, arms have been sent to the central government in Baghdad who then uses them for political leverage over the Kurds. To date, no arms have been shipped to the Kurds of Syria. So, how does one explain the reluctance of the Obama administration to aid those who have demonstrated effectiveness in combatting Islamic State militants and who share our values of democracy, rule of law and tolerance for all regardless of ethnicity or creed? More importantly, what can we do about it?
As has been his pattern, President Obama has again “led from behind,” allowing other nations to decide America’s response. This is partially due to his belief that the United States is an imperialist nation whose power needs to be kept in check. In the case of Islamic State, America’s response has been influenced by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and, most importantly, Turkey. But, are their objectives the same as ours and do they share our values?
One could argue that taking advice from a regional power and NATO ally like Turkey makes sense. But under the leadership of former prime minister and now President Erdogan, Turkey is not the secular republic in once was. Kurds, Armenians, Alevis and other ethnic/religious minorities have been persecuted and jailed just for seeking cultural and religious rights. Reporters Without Borders has called Turkey one of the worst oppressors of press freedoms in the world. As the largest minority group representing almost one-third of Turkey’s population, the Kurds have been particularly targeted, denied rights, recognition and even education in their native tongue. This has led to strong support for the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and their thirty year rebellion against the Turkish government for autonomy and basic cultural rights.
With the pullout of President Bashar Assad’s government troops in 2012, Syria’s Kurds have been able to form an autonomous region in northeast Syria (along Turkey’s southern border and known as Rojava), elect a government and draft a constitution that guarantees equality and tolerance for all. Women represent a majority of elected officials and approximately one-third of soldiers in the Peoples Protection Units, the region’s local defense militia.
This has caused much anxiety among Turkish leaders who fear that their local Kurds will demand a similar system of governance in southeast Turkey. Their claim is that the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the major political party and militia force in northeast Syria, is nothing more than an offshoot of the PKK, whom they label as terrorists. So, rather than support Rojava’s residents, Turkey has decided instead to engage in a proxy war against the Kurds, allowing Islamic State recruits and supplies to cross their border with Syria, while denying the same to Kurdish forces. As a result, America’s policy towards the Kurds of Syria has been one of caution, rather than support. By deferring to Turkey, we have been turned into unwitting collaborators with Islamic State. So, if not America, or its European allies, is there a nation that can and should support the Kurds of Syria? As a Jew and student of the Middle East, it is Israel that I think of first.
Ties between Israel and the Kurdish region are historic, going back millennia possibly to the origins of the Hebrews with Abraham. Ur Kasdim, his city of origins, may be the ancient city of Urkesh in northeast Syria, the very area known as Rojava by the Kurds and currently under attack by Islamic State. Relations between Kurds and the State of Israel began in the 1950’s, when Israel sought alliances with other non-Arab populations of the region, as part of their periphery doctrine. In 1961, the Kurds of Iraq rebelled against Saddam Hussein. When the rebellion seemed near its end in 1964, Kurdish leader Mulla Mustafa Barzani reached out to Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and Shimon Peres, then the leader of the Labor Party. Following the meeting, Israel sent a permanent representative to Iraqi Kurdistan.
Relations between Israel and the Kurds reached their height between 1968-1975, when Israel sent humanitarian aid, arms and training to the Kurds battling Iraq’s Baathist regime. This relationship ended abruptly when Iran signed a treaty with Iraq and Israel lost physical access to its Kurdish allies. Relations were rebuilt after 2003 with the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Media reports tell of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon meeting in secret with Kurdish leaders in 2004 and of current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meeting with Nechirvan Barzani, Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government more recently. On June 29, 2014, Netanyahu became the first world leader to voice his support and to call on the international community to back independence for Iraqi Kurdistan. An article titled Kurdistan: The Next Flashpoint states that “tons of equipment, including motorcycles, tractors, sniffer dogs, systems to upgrade Kalishnakov rifles, bulletproof vests and first aid items have been shipped to Iraq’s northern region,” with most items stamped “Made in Israel.”
So, can the Jewish State save the Kurds of Syria from defeat and genocide at the hands of Islamic State? Israel certainly has the military capability and current intelligence to strategically deliver the arms and aid necessary for them to fight and win. And, unlike America, Israel has no allegiance to Turkey, whose Islamist president has strained ties with anti-Semitic rhetoric and support for terrorist groups like Hamas. And Israel already has ties with the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK), the sister organization to Syria’s PYD. Strategically, it would further Israel’s long-time policy of seeking alliances with other minority populations in the Middle East. And stopping Islamic State now makes sense, as the group’s long-term goals include the annihilation of Israel itself. If that can be accomplished by aiding a group that supports democracy and human rights, all the better! Finally, it is the morally right thing for Israel to do, to end the needless suffering of its neighbors. I pray they act soon!
Sam Griswold is the publisher of JewishPrism.com and author of the novel, True Identity, now available on Amazon, about an Israeli Mossad agent who loses his memory while undercover in Iraqi Kurdistan.