Why the Kurds are a beacon of hope in the Middle East

By Ben Cohen/JNS.org 

Click photo to download. Caption: Kurds celebrate Newroz, Kurdish society's traditional Persian new year holiday, in Istanbul in 2006. Credit: Bertilvidet via Wikimedia Commons.

During the war in Iraq, when I was still living in London and coordinating news coverage of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein for various international media organizations, I was in regular contact with a brave Iraqi Kurdish journalist named Ayub Nuri. When Ayub and I finally met in person, several years later in New York, we spent a couple of hours talking about the region generally, and specifically about whether Israel had a natural ally in the Kurds. 

So it was with some pleasure, in the midst of a horrible news week for the Middle East, that I came across an interview with Ayub in which he said the following: “Kurds are deeply sympathetic to Israel and an independent Kurdistan will be beneficial to Israel. It will create a balance of power. Right now, Israel is one country against many. But with an independent Kurdish state, first of all Israel will have a genuine friend in the region for the first time, and second, Kurdistan will be like a buffer zone in the face of the Turkey, Iran and Iraq.”

Think about the meaning of those words, “a genuine friend.” In this context, it means a country in the region that not only respects Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, but also actively seeks to strengthen their mutual bonds. A country whose population is overwhelmingly Muslim but secular in political orientation, and one where the anti-Semitism that dominates elsewhere in the Islamic world is strikingly absent. Kurdistan actually is what many Jews mistakenly supposed Turkey to be: a Muslim-majority state with no ideological or theological objections to the idea of Jewish national self-determination.

Unlike the Palestinians, whose objections to Israel’s very existence have stymied repeated attempts to create a Palestinian state, the 30 million Kurds have never enjoyed similar international backing in their quest for independence. Instead, they have been repressed and even exterminated by the regimes in the countries in which they are concentrated: Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. But thanks to the U.S.-led victory over Saddam—a Hitler-like figure for the Kurds, who remember his genocidal war against them in the mid-1980s, including the 1988 murder of around 5,000 mostly women and children during a chemical weapons attack on the town of Halabja—the Kurds were able to consolidate a Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in the north of the country. 

Over the last decade, talk of Kurdistan splitting from Iraq has continually surfaced. Many Jews, moved by the shared experience of our two peoples of genocide, and sympathetic to the fact that the Kurds, like us, have been the victims of Arab chauvinism in both its nationalist and Islamist forms, have rightly supported such a move on moral grounds. Yet we shouldn’t forget that this is one situation in which, happily, moral considerations fit neatly with strategic ones. 

As of this moment, the Kurds have little reason to hold back from declaring independence, as they have done in the recent past. For as long as the U.S. was seriously engaged in Iraq, and helping to guarantee de facto Kurdish control of the oil-rich north, the KRG was wise not to upset the delicate balance by making a move that would have caused a major headache for American relations with Turkey and other neighbors. Now, almost three years after President Barack Obama withdrew American troops from Iraq, the Kurds are rightly skeptical that Washington will assist them in confronting the predators around their territories.

More and more, the Middle East looks like a failed region, rather than a collection of failed states. The disintegration of Syria has caused the disintegration of Iraq and could eventually consume Lebanon as well. The obvious winners are jihadi groups like ISIS—the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, one of the most brutal Islamist terrorist organizations we have encountered to date—and the Iranian regime, which has exploited the general meltdown to boost the Assad regime in Damascus and the Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon and Syria (and whose murky relations with the jihadis are closer than many people understand.) Meanwhile, the Americans are stoking the sense that nothing short of a repeat of 9/11—in other words, another terror spectacular on American soil—will reverse their determination to wash their hands of this wretched region.

All those Obama Democrats who complain so loudly about anti-Muslim prejudice in the west apparently have little to say when it comes to the Islamist violence that has created 800,000 Muslim refugees in Iraq this year alone, as well as snuffing out the lives of thousands of other innocent Muslims. Unless the blame for atrocities can be pinned upon the U.S. or Israel, they are simply not interested. Iraq is heading for an appalling civil war, and a large part of the blame for that lies with the Obama administration, which was so determined not to hand George W. Bush any kind of triumph that it abandoned the major battlefield and political gains, paid for with the lives of American troops, achieved during the “surge” of 2007-08.

The results are truly frightening. Terrorist violence has, according to State Department figures, increased by nearly half over the last year. Up to 20,000 foreign jihadis are traveling back and forth from the region; one such was Mehdi Nemmouche, the French citizen accused of carrying out last month’s terrorist atrocity at the Jewish museum in Brussels, who fought with the jihadis in Syria and was arrested carrying a flag with the ISIS symbol in his pocket. Negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program are collapsing, again fueling speculation about an Israeli pre-emptive strike on Tehran’s key nuclear facilities.

Ben Cohen

Most Americans, however, know deep down that the Middle East will interrupt our foreign policy slumber sooner or later. That’s why, more than ever before, we need to be bolstering the only peoples in the region we can truly trust: the Israelis, who have created a model liberal democracy in one of the most reactionary regions on earth, and the Kurds, whose modest wish to join the family of democratic nations is one we should actively be seeking to grant.

Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for JNS.org and a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Commentary, Haaretz, and other publications. His book, “Some Of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014), is now available through Amazon. 

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Posted on June 13, 2014 and filed under Israel, Opinion, World.