7 July 2014, 18:19

We can't count on US to resist ISIS onslaught - MidEast expert

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ISIS map

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Why was the Israeli government so quick in recognizing the creation of a Kurdish state in Iraq? What kind of new challenges does the newly emerging regional architecture pose to Israel? 

Discussing these issues with the Voice of Russia are Brig. Gen (ret.) Shlomo Brom, Senior Research Associate at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), and Dr. Ofra Bengio,Senior Research Fellow, at the Moshe Dayan Center for ME and African studies at the Tel-Aviv University.

On June 29, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said his country would support the creation of a Kurdish state. One of the reasons could be the Kurdish role in opposing the ISIS - a militant sunni group with a declared goal of creating a caliphate in Iraq and a broader ME region.

The ISIS has been the cause of the latest spike of violence in Iraq. That seems to have created the final blow resulting in the disintegration of that country. The ISIS is seen as another force posing serious threat not only to Iraq and the neighbouring countries, but also to Israel which, it looks, is reviewing its alliances.

Says Shlomo Brom, Brig. Gen (ret.), Senior Research Associate Institute for National Security Studies

The situation around Israel is characterized by a very high level of instability. Everyone is looking for some areas where you can achieve stability relatively easily. And it seems that when you are looking generally at the ME, of course, some areas of stability are the non-Arab states in the ME, like Turkey, Iran also and Israel, but to a large extent it is also Kurdistan. So, it is natural for Israel, especially if you take into account its past linkage and a good relationship with the Kurdish national movement, to support the Kurdish independence.

Do we need to expect some kind of a domino effect?

The experience so far with the KRG and the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq is that the neighbours of this autonomy, namely Turkey and Iran, were able to prevent the spillover to their own territory. So, I tend to believe that they will continue succeeding in preventing this spillover, of course, if they will deal with the Kurdish populations wisely.

For example, I'm looking at the attempts that Prime Minister Erdogan is trying to make of providing the Kurds in Turkey with some more kind of cultural autonomy – the right to speak in their own language, the right to study at schools in their own language etc.

At the beginning of the interview you said that the level of instability seems to be rising and one of the actors is the ISIS...

I tend to believe that the threat of ISIS was a little bit overinflated. They have a number of achievements in the Sunni-dominated areas of Iraq because the current Prime Minister of Iraq Maliki, who is the Shiite, succeeded in alienating the Sunni population of Iraq. So, it is actually more a rebellion of the Sunnis against the central Government of Iraq than really this kind of an Islamic revolution etc. ISIS is only an instrument in the hands of the Sunni population of Iraq to get back what they perceive are their rights.

And indeed, when the ISIS came closer to the areas that are characterized by more Shiite population, they were stopped. And at this stage the Government is regaining areas that it has lost to the ISIS.

I don’t believe that the ISIS will really pose a serious challenge to Jordan. Among all these Arab states I think Jordan is a relatively stable, it has very credible military forces and security forces. So, the ISIS can cause some trouble by inciting people that are dissatisfied inside Jordan, but I don’t think that the scenario in which ISIS is trying to invade Jordan is probable.

Some analysts are saying that Israel is being gradually encircled by the regimes that are more hostile towards Israel than their predecessors.

If you are looking at the last year, the relationship between Israel and two of its most important neighbours, namely Egypt and Jordan, only improved. It is the best compared to many years. And one cannot say that Israel was enjoying a friendly relationship with Syria. So, the fact that Syria is destabilized doesn’t make it more hostile to Israel. It was hostile and it remains hostile. And the same is true for Lebanon.

And the third point is that also as the result of these events in the ME there are more common interests of Israel with the Arab Gulf states. And as a result I think the relationship between Israel and these states is improving…

Dr. Ofra Bengio,Senior Research Fellow, The Moshe Dayan Center for ME and African studies at the Tel-Aviv University: 

The recognition of the Iraqi Kurdish independence by Israel seems to be a bit different from the US position. The US says that it really wants to promote Iraqi territorial integrity.

I think we do not always see eye-to-eye with the US’s policy on many things. So, this is one of the areas where Israel, probably, do not see eye-to-eye. And one of the reasons is, it seems to me, that the policy of the US on Iraq is detached from the reality. They can declare day and night that they want Iraqi unity, but Iraqi unity is elusive, it doesn’t exist anymore, especially after what the ISIS did in Iraq and when all the turbulences are taking place in Iran.

So, one has to look at the reality as it appears. And our leaders have understood that this is the time to say something about an independent Kurdistan. They didn’t say that they are going to support it, but, as I understand it, they think that Kurdistan is coming to happen. And if it is going to happen, people and countries should support such an entity.

Talking about Iraqi Kurds, we know that there also are Syrian Kurds, Iranian Kurds, Turkish Kurds. Does that imply that we are going to see more Kurdish independent entities in future?

Not in the short run, for sure. We don’t see yet a Kurdish state in Iraq. It will take time. They will need to prepare a referendum. They have a lot of challenges yet to go. So, we don’t see it any time soon. But certainly, if there is an independent Kurdistan in Iraq, it will be a model for the other Kurds in the other countries.

And actually, one can say that in Syria we already have the autonomous zones in three areas. The Kurds in Syria are also in a certain way more autonomous than the other parts and they have their own government, their own parties etc. They maybe are in a difficult condition there, because the presence of the ISIS is more than in Iraq, because in Iraq the Kurds were able to stop the challenge of the ISIS, but in Syria they are still hitting very hard.

But in the long run, as I said, the state in Syria is in such a flux, but I think that the next possibility after Iraq, if the Kurds of Iraq gain independence, then the Kurds of Syria might follow suit. But still, it is a long way they have to go.

And about Turkey and Iran, we will have to see. But certainly, it will give them more food for thought about the possibility of at least self-rule. I think while it might have a great influence among the Kurds of Iran, they are watching what is happening in Iraq and they are willing very much to follow suit, I don’t know what will happen in Iran.

So, do I get you right that the parade of Kurdish independence is going to put more security pressures on the region?

You know, a conventional wisdom has been that any Kurdish state will destabilize the region. But as we are seeing, it is just the opposite. For one decade we have the Kurds of Iraq making their region much more stable and it was Barzani who helped Maliki to have this Government in 2010.

And the Government in Iraqi Kurdistan, they are having all the refugees and there are no massacres and nothing like what we are seeing among the DAISH. On the contrary, what we are seeing is that the Sunni-Shiite divide, for example, in Iraq is the source of instability. And so is the case in Syria, as well as in other places.

Also, in Syria, we don’t see that the Kurds are doing terrible things to their neighbours. On the contrary, they are talking about bringing all the other forces into the Government etc.

So, I don’t buy the idea that any Kurdish state will cause instability, quite on the contrary.

And what does Israel stand to gain from establishing relations with the prospective Kurdish state?

First of all, we don’t see that the relationships are being established. But if so, we both – Israel and Kurdistan – are small nations and they do not have the legitimacy of the other countries in the region for them to have a state of their own. So, this is already something that binds us together.

And we do not think that Kurdistan will ever do anything against Israel, like launch a war. On the contrary, they will be a source of moderation also vis-à-vis Israel. We do not hear all the day some declarations against Israel etc. Maybe they are not willing to say something positive because of the fear of others, but at least there is no discourse as in the entire Arab world, in other countries against Israel. So, this is already a very good thing.

And also, they can contain the negative forces in Iraq or in other areas. If anything, the ISIS is very dangerous for Israel and for the whole region, for all the countries, including Turkey and Jordan. So, if the Kurds can keep them at bay, it is also good for many other forces in the region, not just Israel.

In fact, you anticipated my next question. I was going to ask you about what kind of risk does the ISIS pose for Israel?

It is a very big risk. Maybe, it is not in the immediate term, because the ISIS are now so much involved in conquering Baghdad or Karbala, or fighting the Shiites, because these are their main enemies. But on the other hand, any success of the ISIS will give further ideas to other Islamists in the region, like Hamas, and not just Hamas, but just people in the street to try and copy that model and bring Islamic caliphate to Israel as well, because any success will always bring the possibility that others will try to follow that model.

And this is not just for Israel, actually, for the whole world, because their success might have repercussions in Europe, in the US and Russia too.

Do you think that in those circumstances you could really count on the US support in this case?

If we can count on the US to contain the ISIS danger? No, we cannot, because the US has given up, I think, its involvement in Iraq, even though that it says that it is going to send some experts etc. but I don’t think that the US and especially Obama will try to do anything to contain the ISIS. He hopes that maybe some others will do the work for the US, unfortunately. Maybe they are hoping that Iran will help Maliki or whatever government is in Baghdad to do things. But they are not going to be involved and they are not going to stop the danger, unless it comes back to their gates.

But in this case, when we are looking at the new regional architecture, resulting from the Arab Spring, what are the long-term challenges for Israel? Does it need to establish new relationships, new alliances? How do you see that?

I think maybe Israel is trying to find alliances, not open ones, of course, more behind the scenes with the countries of the Gulf, who are afraid of Iran no less than Israel or even more, and more moderate countries, such as Egypt, even with all the difficulties Egypt is in, and continuing with Jordan and maybe even trying to find new ways with Turkey as well, because Turkey as well is in a very problematic situation with these double dangers from what I call Jihadistan and Shiistan. So, Turkey also might be looking for some covert relations with Israel or some certain close relations with Israel better than in the past. We didn’t hear for some time any negative proclamations against Israel. Maybe it is a good sign.

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