With the war against ISIS and the Syrian Civil War dying down, much has been said about the dangers of Iranian-backed groups on the Israeli border. But in a rapidly changing Near East, there is also increasing opportunity for new and enhanced alliances between Israel and other states or entities. The overwhelming vote in Iraqi Kurdistan for secession from Arab-majority Iraq could potentially reshape the Middle East map. Kurds in Iran and Syria are increasingly voicing support for the referendum, and want their own autonomy or independence as well. The Baluch people of eastern Iran and southwestern Pakistan have voiced support for the referendum, perhaps looking to do something similar in the future after their long fight for independence. In North Africa, the indigenous Amazigh (Berber) people have increasingly supported the Kurdish cause as well as defended Zionism from Arab nationalists and Islamists. At a time when the Arab World is increasingly weakened, radicalized, and sidelined, and when President Trump and others are trying to bring the Arab states closer to Israel, it is worth asking whether another kind of regional realignment in relations–a new alliance of the periphery, if you will–can emerge instead of an “Arab NATO” that includes Israel.
The Alliance of the Periphery was created by Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, as well as Eliahu Sassoon, a Middle East expert and Israel’s first diplomatic representative to Ankara. In the 1930s, Arab regimes in the Middle East began adopting similar nationalist-socialist rhetoric and policies as Nazi Germany. Leaders such as Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Hafez al-Assad of Syria, and Saddam Hussein of Iraq united their populations around hatred of minorities and non-Arab ruled states in the region. First and foremost among these was Israel, which had fought for its independence in 1948 and against all odds defeated the Arab armies that attacked it. At the same time, this Arab Nationalism created an atmosphere that allowed pogroms to be inflicted upon Kurds and Jews in the region, as well as the wholesale expulsion of most Jews from Arab lands. It allowed for the systemic discrimination against the Amazigh in North Africa; the settler-colonialism by the Iraqi and Syrian regimes into Kurdistan; and the Iraqi war against the hated “Persians” in Iran in the 1980s. For Israel, it made strategic sense to increase relations with Ethiopia, Iran, and Turkey, as well as Kurds–all of whom faced the same existential threat from Arab nationalism as Israel did. After the Yom Kippur War and the signing of a peace treaty with Egypt, Arab nationalism began to die down. The radicalization in 1979 of Iran and in current times of Turkey led to this Alliance of the Periphery crumbling, and Israel’s signing of a peace treaty with Jordan and under-the-table cooperation with other Arab states against the Iranian threat and Sunni jihadists in recent times seem to have pushed this doctrine into the dustbin of history. However, with the decline of Arab power and the US and other Western states retreating from Middle Eastern conflicts, it may be necessary to resurrect and reform this Alliance of the Periphery.
Much is often said about Israel having few or no friends in the Near East, or on the world stage as a whole. Au contraire, the Jewish state has developed and maintained friendships with numerous actors in the region, and is in a better-placed position than most countries to end smaller, less-known regional confrontations among states, peoples and entities that it is close with. Such examples include conflicts between Armenia & Azerbaijan and Kurdistan & Assyrians. Russia, the European Union, and the United States have no ability or interest in solving these conflicts, and other regional powers (Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia) are more than happy to sit on the sidelines and watch it play out or directly contribute. Many of these countries have either similar histories to the Jews; similar aspirations and interests as Israel; or historic relationships with the Jewish people and Israel. If Israel wishes to challenge Iran and its proxy network in the Middle East as well establish more friendships in the region rather than always relying on the increasingly-hostile Europeans, it is imperative that it help mediate conflicts between its allies and partners.
Assyria and Kurdistan:
The conflict between Kurds and Assyrians in Mesopotamia is ancient and continues simmering to this day, despite common interests. Assyrians, the majority of whom are Christian, are one of the oldest native peoples in the Middle East. They built a vast empire that at one point went to war against the Hebrews in ancient Israel. However, Persia, Mongols, Arabs, Turks, and Europeans over time suppressed them, with perhaps the most atrocious episode in Assyrian history occurring in the early 20th Century The Ottoman Empire carried out a genocide of 700,000 Greeks, 1.5 million Armenians, and around 300,000 Assyrians–all of whom were Christian-majority peoples. Assisting the Ottoman Empire in the slaughter of Assyrians were some local Arab and Kurdish tribes. Other Assyrians were expelled forcibly from their homes in the empire. Many Kurds have acknowledged and apologized for the terrible role some of their people played in this event, unlike Turkey ,which continues to deny any genocide took place during World War One. At other points in history, Assyrians and Kurds went to war with each other. At times, Assyrians supported European colonialists against rebelling Kurdish groups, and even supported the policies of Saddam Hussein and the Assad family regime in their anti-Kurdish and often genocidal policies towards Kurdistan. Many Assyrians to this day continue to deny the notion of a Kurdish people, instead referring to them as “scattered Persians” who merely speak another dialect of Farsi.
In modern times, it is no secret that both nations want peace and strong ties with Israel. Both Kurds and Assyrians see the modern establishment of a Jewish state as an indigenous community of the region achieving independence after centuries of genocide, persecution, ethnic cleansing, and colonialism. Like Israel, Assyrians and Kurds have faced the threats of Arab nationalism and jihadi violence. Both have the potential to become valuable allies of Israel in terms of development and securing stability in the region. Kurds and Assyrians (along with other Christians) have fought together against ISIS and other Sunni jihadists for the past few years. However, overlapping claims the Nineveh Plain in northern Iraq between the two nations means that a new bout of fighting could break out between them, undermining the regional struggle against terrorism and preventing autonomy or independence for either nation–both of which deserve it. Ethnic clashes and discrimination against Assyrians still occasionally occur in Kurdistan, despite equality for minorities being officially touted by the government.
The good news is that there is more dialogue between the two groups, and increasing willingness among Assyrians to become part of Kurdistan, albeit with autonomy. And Kurdish officials have increasingly stated that Christians (Assyrians in particular) are an indigenous people in the region, not just another minority. The fight against ISIS is still raging on and the Kurdistan independence referendum in Iraq has created issues with Iran, Turkey, and the Baghdad government. However, a more unified front between Kurds and Assyrians that could end the conflict could display to the international community that a multi-ethnic Kurdish state could indeed provide for regional stability. If necessary, desired, and possible, Israel can and should try to build bridges between the two communities and help them in any way they wish.
Armenia & Azerbaijan:
The Armenia and Azerbaijan conflict is one over land and identity. In part, it stems from Azerbaijan’s close and deep cultural links to Turkey. That extends to Azerbaijan’s refusal to recognize (along with the Turkish government) the 1915 genocide of Armenians. In terms of land-based conflicts, Armenia and Azerbaijan have clashed over the autonomous exclave of Nakhchivan and the Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh region. Wars have been fought, shortly after each country gained independence from the Soviet Union in the 1990s, and propaganda against the other side is still extremely antagonistic. Regarding Israel, there are ties with both sides. The Jews and the Armenians have similar histories. Both groups were religious minorities (Armenians being overwhelming Christian) in the Near East. They had similar trades and were persecuted similarly in Turkish, Arab and Persian lands. The Armenian Genocide, in fact, was noted by future Nazis who planned the Final Solution for the Jewish people. Israel and Armenia are working on cultivating closer ties, and their diasporas cooperate on genocide awareness and fostering inclusivity in Europe and elsewhere. Azerbaijan and Israel have long enjoyed close ties, as both are concerned about Iran’s support for terrorism and malevolent acts in the Near East. While Israel and Turkey saw a fraying of relations due to the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident and Ankara’s growing Islamist rhetoric, this never caused a diplomatic deterioration with Baku–even though Baku and Ankara often coordinate regarding foreign policy. The Mountain Jews, as they are known, of Azerbaijan have faced very little discrimination, even around the existence of Israel, despite the country being majority Muslim. The secular nature of Azerbaijan’s Muslim community is often heralded by Israel and others as a possible role model for the rest of the Islamic World.
Currently, both Armenia and Azerbaijan are competing for the affection and attention of Israel, often times to turn it against the other country. Each side portrays the other as colluding with Israel’s enemies (Iran and Turkey, respectively) and having an anti-Semitic nature. This competition means that Israel potentially has a lot of leeway and influence, and the ability to make peace between the two. Or, at the very least, to forge some sort of understanding and decrease tensions. Rather than trying to discern which side is “in the wrong” or “anti-Israel”, it would be more worthwhile for Israel to gain Armenia’s trust by stopping its obvious pro-Azeri slant and become a more neutral partner to both countries. Another way to gain Armenia’s trust is to put more distance between it and Turkey (which is occurring naturally anyways), and become more neutral in regards to disputes between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The conflict between Yerevan and Baku is their own and theirs to solve, and it makes no sense for Israel to lament either country over a friendship with one of Jerusalem’s rivals. After all, Israel’s alliances with India (which is friendly with Iran) and the USA (which is friendly with Turkey) haven’t suffered. It would be in the interests of Jerusalem to become more balanced in its relations with the Caucasus states, for the sake of shared histories and low levels of anti-Semitism compared to the rest of the “Eurasia” region, and for the sake of stopping the spread of Islamism. Islamism not only threatens the Jewish state’s existence, but also the existence of Christian-majority Armenia and the secular nature of Azerbaijan. Furthermore, with disputed territories between the two Caucasian states, and given Israel’s own dispute with the Palestinians over the fate of Judea & Samaria (the West Bank), it would make sense for all three to look at each other as models, or for encouragement, in terms of negotiating land disputes and peace with opposing sides.
While Kurdistan is often viewed singularly in the West, in fact there are sharp political and sometimes linguistic differences between the Kurds. Kurds in Turkey and Syria are somewhat linked in their leftist politics (although the Rojava region of Syria is more moderate). In some cases, they are content with autonomy or having equal rights in the countries they reside in. On the other hand, Iraqi and Iranian Kurds are more hawkish, nationalist, and capitalist. These differences have led to fighting amongst the different Kurdish factions, perhaps most famously in the 1990s. And even within Kurdish entities (such as in Iraq), different political parties have clashed with each other. Israel has strong, if largely concealed, relations with Kurds in Iran and Iraq, and growing ties with Syria’s Kurdish population. Relations with Turkey’s PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) are much more complex and less friendly. However, Kurds from all regions, by and large, view Israel and Jews in a favorable light. Israel can warm its ties with the Kurds of Turkey and Syria in a similar way that it can with Armenia–acknowledging the growing distance between it and Turkey, and allowing it to happen.
What can Israel do? Due to its stellar reputation among a huge segment–likely a majority–of Kurdistan’s population, it is better placed than any other country to help facilitate negotiations, peace agreements, and unity among the Kurds. Already, Rojava and Iraqi Kurdistan are fostering better relations amongst each other. With a mediator like Israel, which has warm ties with both parties as well as other Kurdish factions, it could naturally be seen as an honest broker in ways that other powers are not. The United States and European Union want to stick with the failed “one Syria, one Iraq” Sykes-Picot model, and have used and abused the Kurds for too long to ever be truly trusted. Russia is a suspicious actor which is too closely aligned with Iran and Syria (increasingly, too, with Turkey), to be a reliable partner. If the Kurds want to establish a state that can survive, it is imperative that they unify, economically develop, and develop a military that is capable of defending itself from all surrounding actors that wish it harm. Many voices inside Kurdistan already say that the way to accomplish this is to look to Israel as an example. Arms deliveries and military training by Israel to Kurds has occurred over a span of decades. Now, achieving peace and unity among different factions, as well as overcoming international and regional isolation and building a viable economy, is no less important for the Kurdish people. Israel has weathered these hostile conditions for years and can offer immense help and guidance in the case of Kurdistan.
If you will it, it is no dream:
The first and foremost threat to world peace and regional stability is Iran and its growing proxy network across the Middle East. The fanatical, bigoted, and extremist clerics in Tehran aim to recreate the Persian Empire, dominate minority groups in the Middle East, and deny self-determination to the Jews, Kurds, Sunnis, Baluchis, and others. Russia is now an open ally of Tehran’s, and Turkey is warming up to the regime. The Europeans have never been reliable for anything in the Middle East, much less making peace and stability. The Americans are inward-looking and tired of war. Arab countries are too weak, fragile, divided, and poor to do much against Iran other than by fighting against the Houthis in Yemen — something that has created immense carnage and done little to end the war. The only viable way for Israel to challenge Iran without going it alone is to find new regional allies, pacify and stabilize the region, and create a new coalition based on common interests and values.
Often there is also the debate among religious Jews over what exactly the role is of “the chosen people.” I think that this means we have a duty towards creating a better world. What better place to start than in our own neighborhood? We must embrace the role of peacemakers in the Near East. This doesn’t mean that we always cave to the Arabs or Iran, or that we stop defending ourselves, as those among the far-left advocate. It means that we form relationships and friendships based on common values and interests, deepen those that already exist, and create an atmosphere of trust that allows former rivals or enemies to come together and cooperate. It means that we can set the example for many, and should acknowledge this while also not trying to push it on others. If the United States, under Bush, Obama, and Trump, has failed in numerous and different ways to be the “shining city on a hill” for the world, Israel must not cease to be the “light unto nations.” This doesn’t mean superiority; it means setting an example and offering help where it is needed.
At this point in time, it is imperative that Israel and other entities and countries in the region realize fully that we cannot rely on anyone but ourselves, and that it is up to us to stop the march of evil across the Near East. Forming closer ties with Arab countries cannot and should not happen unless they accept minority rights (including the right of Israel to exist as the Jewish state) and fundamentally change the way they function and rule (meaning, cease human rights abuses). There can be no peace or even coexistence with them until this happens. As such, we must form other relationships that can be more reliable and create regional stability at the same time as maintaining and growing our self-reliance and independence. Although the growing chorus of voices out there might say that our future is with partnering with Arab states, and that there is no chance of resurrecting a new Alliance of the Periphery, I say what Theodor Herzl said: if you will it, it is no dream.