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Kurdistan on Edge

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Israel's Kurdish Conundrum-- Choose Between the Turks and the Kurds.

August 19th 2016

PKK (Kurdish Worker's Party) Fighter

A comparison and contrast between two developments of great significance for Israel's regional future - the Kurdish question, and the development of the offshore natural gas fields -  are more related than may appear on the surface.
The recent Turkish-Israeli "deal", assuming that post-coup Turkey can live up to its commitments, poses a serious policy dilemma for Israel.

The Kurds are perhaps Israel's closest allies in the Middle East and will very likely, sooner rather than later, declare independence, with either the Iraqi Kurdish area and the Syrian Kurdish area joining forces, or declaring independence separately. In the meantime, the principal organization of Iranian Kurds outside Iran has declared virtual war on the Iranian regime and incidents in Iranian Kurdistan have been increasing.

A comparison and contrast between two developments of great significance for Israel's regional future - the Kurdish question, and the development of the offshore natural gas fields -  are more related than may appear on the surface.
The recent Turkish-Israeli "deal", assuming that post-coup Turkey can live up to its commitments, poses a serious policy dilemma for Israel. The Kurds are perhaps Israel's closest allies in the Middle East and will very likely, sooner rather than later, declare independence, with either the Iraqi Kurdish area and the Syrian Kurdish area joining forces, or declaring independence separately. In the meantime, the principal organization of Iranian Kurds outside Iran has declared virtual war on the Iranian regime and incidents in Iranian Kurdistan have been increasing.

After surviving the attempt to overthrow it by the Gulenists, the Erdogan regime will likely intensify its repression of the Kurds of southeastern Turkey, who represent about 20% of Turkey's population. All these developments pose a serious dilemma for Jerusalem's policymakers. They can actively support the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds and clandestinely support the Iranian Kurds and should certainly do so. But what about the Turkish Kurds? Growing friendship between Israel and the Iraqi/Syrian Kurds would infuriate the Turks and certainly make a mockery of the rapprochement of which the government is so proud.

In the meantime and finally (hopefully) freed from all domestic regulatory and judicial restraints, natural gas development continues apace. Natural gas revenues are increasing constantly, a great boon to the Israeli budget for which all Israelis should be grateful. The two small southern gas fields have been sold to a Cypriot company. A tender has been issued to develop further offshore gas and oil resources.

The geopolitical implications of all this cannot be overstated. Gas is an essential energy source worldwide and increasing in importance as the use of coal and to some extent oil, decreases. The growing gas-alliance between Israel, Cyprus, and Greece, and the supply of natural gas to Jordan are developments of great importance in the regional context.
What variable joins the Kurdish question and natural gas diplomacy together? Turkey. That country, rapidly descending into open authoritarianism, has decided to normalize relations not just with Israel but also with Russia, including an apology for shooting down a Russian warplane and compensation to the families of the pilots. Sound familiar? Erdogan and Putin have already met and kissed and made up.

Why is this significant to Israel? Because one of the main reasons for Turkey's desire to re-connect with Israel was to replace Russian gas supply, endangered by the dispute with Russia, with Israeli natural gas.

Now that is no longer necessary. Coupled with the Kurdish conundrum and reduced post-coup capability on the part of Turkey to rein in Hamas in Gaza and prevent another Gaza war, the future of the Israeli-Turkish deal looks decidedly gloomy.

Would that be a bad thing? A formal or informal alliance with Syrian/Iraqi Kurdistan, providing cover in the north in case of hostile activity on the Israeli borders is arguably more important than a fragile normalization with Turkey, which is any case the unpredictable Erdogan regime could end anytime for reasons of its own.

Norman A. Bailey, Ph.D., is Professor of Economics and National Security, The National Security Studies Center, University of Haifa, and Adjunct Professor of Economic Statecraft, The Institute of World Politics, Washington, DC. He was formerly with the US National Security Council and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.


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