Kurdish question brings Israel, Russia closer but Syria needs lasting peace

While Russian troops have partially withdrawn from Syria, peace talks continue between U.S.- and Russian-led camps and also between countries at bilateral level as in the case of Russia and Israel.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin meet in the Kremlin on March 16

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin meet in the Kremlin on March 16

On March 15, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin visited Moscow to hold talks with President Vladimir Putin on Syria and the circumstances that led to Russian pull-out. According to Israeli media, the two leaders also discussed continued military coordination between Jerusalem and Moscow in Syria.

Rivlin later held talks with Prime Minister Medvedevin in which Russian government sought more imports of agriculture products from Israel to replace Turkish products blocked following sanctions on Ankara.

An Israeli official told local media that “over the last few months, we had regular contact with the Russians at the highest level, and that will continue.”

The talks were sanctioned by Benjamin Netanyahu who is set to meet Putin.

A key issue discussed was the Kurdish question. As with Iraqi Kurds, the Kurds of Syria are also behind the scene of talks with the Netanyahu government to establish relations. Russia is already supporting them and it is a major point of discord between Russia and Turkey.

Israel, on its part, was the first state to declare its support for an ‘independent’ Kurdistan.

In 2014, Netanyahu said: “We should … support the Kurdish aspiration for independence. Kurds are a nation of fighters [who] have proved political commitment and are worthy of independence.”

This January, Israel’s Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked called for an independent Kurdistan between Iran and Turkey, and an enhanced policy of cooperation between Israelis and the Kurds.

When Iraqi Kurds defied Baghdad in 2015 and began direct sale of the oil in their region, Israel became the major buyer. The oil revenues allowed the Iraqi Kurds to finance their fight against Islamic State (IS). A Financial Times report estimated that Israel had purchased 19 million barrels of Iraqi Kurdish oil worth roughly $1 billion between May and August last year.

While Turkey views these developments with great caution and has been opposing the establishment of an ‘independent’ Kurdish state, Israel and Russia do not seem to share the concerns of Turkey which, many believe in Israel, has been supporting Hamas which, in turn, aims at ‘destroying’ Israel. These mutual concerns as well as the differing positions with regard to the Kurdish question have been instrumental in bringing Israel and Russia closer.

Despite Turkey’s attempts at normalizing its relations with Israel, Jerusalem continues to prefer Russia. According to a new report, Israel and Russia are about to agree upon a modus operandi in the East Mediterranean.

Israel would reportedly agree to end talks with Turkey on the sale of Israeli gas to Ankara to help it replace Russian Gazprom gas which still supplies 50% to 60% of gas to Turkey despite sanctions. The report states that the Israeli military establishment “prefers maintaining military cooperation with Russia to potential Israeli gas sales to Turkey if they hurt Russian interests.”

This report strongly challenges the U.S.’ own attempts at facilitating normalization between Turkey and Israel. In the March 14 meeting between the U.S. vice president Joe Biden and Israel’s Netanyahu, Biden was reported to have ‘impressed upon’ Netanyahu to enter into a weapons and gas agreement with Turkey as a means to strengthen the U.S.-led block’s position in the fast changing geo-strategic scenario.

According to Hareetz newspaper, Biden told Netanyahu that Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan was eager to conclude the reconciliation agreement with Israel and said he was willing to assist in any way possible to achieve that elusive agreement between the two long-standing allies of the US.

However, despite the U.S.’ attempts, Israel is expected to maintain its tilt towards Kurds and, thereby towards Russia.

Professor Ofra Bengio, head of the Kurdish studies program at Tel Aviv University, told  Times of Israel: “Israel can gain friendship with a party that is stable, pro-Israel, more democratic, more open and liberal. The role of women in Kurdish Syria is open, more egalitarian than any other place in the region.”

Though relations between Syrian Kurds and Israel would be secret, Bengio believes that Israel should stand strong in its support of Syria’s Kurds and break the linkage between its relations with Turkey and that of the Kurds.

If Israel continues to maintain a pro-Russia and pro-Kurds stand, this would put serious challenge for the U.S. diplomacy to bring its desired outcome on the Syrian question. And as it stands, the U.S. is most likely to respond to these developments by harping on the so-called ‘Plan B’ to Balkanize Syria into different zones. Not only would it help it pre-empt the establishment of an ‘independent’ Kurdish question but also help it keep its Arab allies in its camp for long.

While the major players involved in highlighting or sidelining the Kurdish question continue to make their moves to strengthen their respective positions in the oil-rich region, what stands clear is the unlikely conflict resolution in Syria.

By dividing Syria into “zones” or by establishing an ‘independent’ Kurdistan, the war in Syria would not end.

The self-styled Islamic State’s (IS) agenda goes well beyond these plans as it plans to establish its own caliphate. Hence the question: how would the two plans — ‘independent’ Kurdistan or Syria’s division into zones — contribute to eliminating the world’s richest terrorist organization? This question can no longer be ignored if a genuine conflict resolution plan is to be worked out.

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a freelance journalist and research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His area of interest is South and West Asian politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics. He can be reached at salmansheikh.ss11.sr@gmail.com

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