“The Kurds have no friends but the mountains,” goes a traditional Kurdish saying. No friends but the mountains and Israel would be more accurate.
Israel stood alone when its political leadership embraced the Kurdish quest for self-determination. A “brave, pro-Western people who share our values,” is how Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the Kurds. The deep affinity is mutual. Israeli flags were raised during pro-independence rallies in the Kurdistan region, the US and across Europe.
But less than two months after the Kurds voted by an overwhelming margin of 93 percent in favor of breaking away from Iraq, the Kurdish dream of independence lies in ruins. On Tuesday, Iraq’s parliament in Baghdad voted to criminalize flying the Israeli flag in the country, accusing the Mossad of orchestrating the Kurdish independence referendum to establish a second Israel in the Middle East.
The move comes after Kurdish forces had come under fire by Iranian-backed militia in mid-October, supported by elements of the Iraqi army, in the northern city of Kirkuk. The forces that rolled into Kurdish territory in the early hours of the morning were driving US-made Humvees, supplied by Washington to the central government in Baghdad for the fight against Islamic State (ISIS).
Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s supreme spymaster – a man who thrives on chaos and destruction – had met the day before with Iraqi Kurdistan’s main opposition party in Sulaimaniya and left the leadership of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan Party (PUK) with a simple choice: surrender Kirkuk or face the unrestrainable brutality of his forces. PUK withdrew without resistance and surrendered the oilfields of Kirkuk – the lifeline of an independent Kurdistan – to the invading forces.
The assault on Kirkuk didn’t happen in a vacuum. It happened just hours after US President Donald Trump stood in front of the world and announced what many of us had hoped for: a comprehensive plan to counter what he called “the Iranian regime’s hostile actions,” facilitated by the fatal flaws of the nuclear accord.
Iran then put the president’s words to the test. And Washington failed. The credibility of the administration in Washington took a bad hit – mocked in front of the world by the clerical regime in Tehran – as it looked on while Soleimani’s henchmen crushed our most trusted ally with US-supplied equipment.
The same Shi’ite commander, Qais Khazali, who abducted and executed American soldiers during the Iraq war was now pointing the gun at the Kurds. And the same terrorist, Abu Mahdi al-Mohandis, who masterminded the bombing of the American embassy in Kuwait was now blowing to pieces the Kurds’ legitimate quest for self-determination.
The enemies of Kurdistan are the enemies of the US. And their enemies are also the enemies of the State of Israel. When the Iraqi armed forces fled before the caliphate’s troops in the summer of 2014, it was the Kurds who fought at the frontline between civilization and barbarity.
Of course, the Kurds have seen it all before. The feeling of betrayal is not new to them.
Numbering over 30 million people spread among Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, they are no strangers to persecution and remain the largest ethnic group without their own state. During the height of Saddam Hussein’s genocidal reign the Kurds were forcefully Arabized, mass-slaughtered with chemical weapons and exiled into the mountains.
If that sounds familiar, it is because the Kurdish narrative is not that different from the Jewish narrative. An ethnically unique people, rich in culture, with a deep-rooted commitment to peaceful coexistence and human rights, and a quest for a place to call their own.
As Jews, we know all too well the fear of perpetual persecution. And after the trauma of the Holocaust, we understood that Israel was the only place where Jews would ever be truly safe from another genocide.
The Kurds, too, deserve such a place. Shortly before the referendum took place on September 25, Iraq’s former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki – a man known for his affinity for sectarian violence and his ties to Tehran – vowed that the creation of a second Israel in Iraq would not be tolerated.
This kind of threatening language should leave us with no uncertainty over who is friend and who is foe. On the one side, we have a sworn enemy of the West. A country in the grip of a fanatical theocratic regime that oppresses its own citizens, abducts and murders American citizens and vows to wipe the State of Israel off the map. On the other, we have a small but brave people, committed to democracy and human rights, that have proven to be a bulwark against Iranian hegemony and religious extremism in the region.
Iran is one a mission. The Islamic Republic is determined to establish a “Shi’ite crescent” and Kurdistan and Israel can serve as two critical roadblocks in what would be a Shi’ite bridge crossing the Middle East to Africa, threatening the security of Israel and her allies.
If the West has any moral integrity and, for that matter, sense of self-preservation, it will throw its full weight behind the Iraqi Kurds and throw what one might call the “Soleimani imperative” back at Tehran: surrender or face the wrath of the United States of America.
Sarah Stern is the president of the Endowment for Middle East Truth. This article was originally published at the jerusalem post.