Turkey’s campaign against PKK-linked militants in northeast Syria last month led to strong condemnation of Ankara from many governments worldwide. The Turkish incursion gave Israel a chance to join in in denouncing Ankara. Yet Israel’s agenda in relation to Syria’s Kurdish minority is sinister and based on a decades-old strategy of seeking to carve up Arab states
Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring, which began on October 9, marked the latest instance whereby most Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member-states and Egypt found themselves in the same geopolitical boat as Israel. Shortly after Turkey launched the military campaign against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)-affiliated People’s Protection Units (YPG), Israel’s leadership quickly expressed opposition to Turkey’s latest incursion into northeast Syria.
At the onset of Operation Peace Spring, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted: “Israel strongly condemns the Turkish invasion of the Kurdish areas in Syria and warns against the ethnic cleansing of the Kurds by Turkey and its proxies. Israel is prepared to extend humanitarian assistance to the gallant Kurdish people.” He also offered the YPG Israeli assistance and, earlier this month, Israel’s deputy foreign minister Tzipi Hotovely publicly confirmed that the militia accepted Netanyahu’s offer. She explained that Israel views the YPG as a bulwark against Iranian influence in the region and that Israel is using its leverage vis-à-vis Washington to try to pressure the U.S. into not abandoning its partnership with the YPG.
“Israel indeed has a salient interest in preserving the strength of the Kurds and the additional minorities in the north Syria area as moderate and pro-Western elements,” Israel’s deputy foreign minister stated. “The possible collapse of the Kurdish hold in north Syria is a negative and dangerous scenario as far as Israel is concerned. It is absolutely clear that such an event would bring about a bolstering of negative elements in the area, headed by Iran.”
Israel’s former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked concurred, stating that an independent Kurdish state along Syria’s border with Turkey is one of “Israel’s big interests;” adding, “A free Kurdistan should be established, at least in Iraq. It is in the U.S. and Israel’s interest for this to happen. It is time for the U.S. to support the process.” Zvi Hauser, an Israeli parliamentarian, tweeted: “As a nation-state of an ethnic minority in the Middle East, Israel cannot close its eyes to the suffering of the Kurds in the region.”
Many Israeli media outlets voiced grave concerns about the consequences of President Donald Trump’s announced withdrawal of US forces from part of Syria, which gave President Recep Tayyip Erdogan the green light to launch the incursion. Speaking to Israeli Channel 12, columnist Nadav Ayal accused Trump of having “abandoned his Kurdish ally, the only effective force to fight President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Syria.”
Speaking to the Jerusalem Post, the Rubin Center for Research in International Affairs’s Seth Frantzman said that an independent Kurdish state in northeast Syria “would be another country with good relations with Israel.”
Israel’s history of supporting various Kurdish factions with separatist ambitions in the Middle East is not new. Since the 1960s, Israel has coordinated with Kurdish groups across a host of domains—from intelligence to business to military cooperation—premised on its perspective that the Kurds are a buffer force against states that both Kurds and Israelis view as threatening. In 2011, Israel’s controversial and hardline foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman purportedly arranged to meet with PKK leaders in Europe in order to “cooperate with them and boost them in every possible area.” At a conference held in Tel Aviv in 2016, Shaked said: “We must openly call for the establishment of a Kurdish state that separates Iran from Turkey, one which will be friendly towards Israel.”
The Oded Yinon Plan
Israel’s security and geopolitical positions will become stronger through the weakening of near-by states in the region that do, or at least could, threaten Israel’s dominant military posture.
Today, Israel sees the YPG in northeast Syria as a force that can help Israel advance its interests in countering Damascus, Tehran, Baghdad, and Ankara—all at once. As Tel Aviv sees it, Israel’s security and geopolitical positions will become stronger through the weakening of near-by states in the region that do, or at least could, threaten Israel’s dominant military posture. Supporting Kurdish factions to undermine the territorial integrity of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey helps counter these Muslim-majority countries which have histories of challenging Israel in different ways. Israel recognizes that if such powers in the region are constantly bogged down with internal conflicts, they will be too weak to challenge Israel or lend the Palestinians any meaningful support.
Israel has pursued this strategy of dividing Arab states throughout its history, not only via the Kurds but also through its relationships with Christian communities in Lebanon and present-day South Sudan. In 1982, the Israeli journalist Oded Yinon, who was previously attached to Israel’s Foreign Ministry, articulated this vision in an article (entitled “A Strategy for Israel in the Nineteen Eighties”) that advocated policies for Israel which were designed to break up Arab states. Yinon wrote:
“Lebanon’s total dissolution into five provinces serves as a precedent for the entire Arab world including Egypt, Syria, Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula and is already following that track. The dissolution of Syria and Iraq later on into ethnically or religiously unique areas such as in Lebanon, is Israel’s primary target on the Eastern front in the long run, while the dissolution of the military power of those states serves as the primary short-term target. Syria will fall apart, in accordance with its ethnic and religious structure, into several states such as in present day Lebanon, so that there will be a Shi’ite Alawi state along its coast, a Sunni state in the Aleppo area, another Sunni state in Damascus hostile to its northern neighbor, and the Druze who will set up a state, maybe even in our Golan, and certainly in the Hauran and in northern Jordan. This state of affairs will be the guarantee for peace and security in the area in the long run, and that aim is already within our reach today.”
Beyond a divide-and-rule premise intended to strengthen Israel’s hegemony over the Arab world, Israel’s interest in maintaining a relationship with the YPG in northeast Syria is to establish a perch near the Syrian-Iraqi border from where Israel can stage attacks against Iranian interests. According to a Middle East Eye article by David Hearst, Israel’s recent strikes against Iranian-linked targets in Iraq were carried out from YPG-controlled land in northeastern Syria. Moreover, given that Syria’s hydrocarbon wealth is also situated here, Israel has vested interests in preventing the Damascus regime from successfully retaking full control of Syrian land, naturally leaving Tel Aviv with a stake in aiding any Kurdish group seeking autonomy (if not outright independence) from Syria’s central government.
Israel is interested in Turkey remaining bogged down in warfare along its borders, thus undermining Ankara’s potential to increase its power throughout the Middle East.
Challenging Turkey and pushing back against Ankara’s influence in the Arab world is also a high priority for Israel. Despite a history of close ties in the Cold War era and the 1990s, Turkish-Israeli relations have soured since 2000. Such friction has stemmed from a multitude of issues including the 2010 flotilla episode, Ankara’s cordial relations with Hamas, sanctions on Iran, and Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians. Ultimately, Turkey’s support for political Islam and Ankara’s ties with Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated actors in the region have left Israel increasingly fearful of a strong and stable Turkey that is capable of growing its clout throughout the grander Islamic world. Clearly, Israel is interested in Turkey remaining bogged down in warfare along its borders, thus undermining Ankara’s potential to increase its power throughout the Middle East.
Despite Ankara waging three military campaigns against the YPG since August 2016, the PKK-affiliated force remains a threat to Turkey. Like other states, such as the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, which have reportedly aided the YPG in countering Turkish influence in Syria and the rest of the Arab region, Israel sees much utility in the Kurdish militia.
Finally, depending on the future of fragile ceasefires in Syria, the YPG may rely more on Israeli support, especially if future clashes between Turkey and the Syrian Kurdish force escalate and the YPG finds itself seeking more support from external parties beyond Washington to fight the Turks.