Last week, for the first time in my life, I met an Israeli intelligence official, a retired Mossad agent. On April 7, I gave a lecture at Tel Aviv University on the state of Turkey’s Kurdish issue. Although the room was not as full as I had wished, the audience was not only sincerely interested in the subject but some interesting people were present. Such as Eliezer Geizi Tsafrir.
Tsafrir was the former head of Mossad stations in Iraqi Kurdistan, Iran and Lebanon. He is a former Shabak [Israeli secret service] and Mossad senior official, who also served as the prime minister’s adviser on Arab affairs. Since he retired, he has written at least three books in Hebrew — the first one is entitled, “Ana Kurdi: War and Escape in Kurdistan.”
“Even after retirement, when we write something, it goes through some sort of censorship before getting published,” he told Al-Monitor. “I have gone through these procedures many times, and I am allowed to talk publicly on these matters. Mossad people usually don’t have such permission.”
Still, Tsafrir preferred not to comment directly on the current state of Turkey’s relations with the Kurds or what he thinks of the Turkish government’s engagement with the imprisoned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan. But he authoritatively denied that Mossad had played any role in his capture in 1999. He also said, "The PKK has decided to go through a major change, both militarily and politically. They might even have set relations with the US."
Tsafrir expressed skepticism about Turkey’s overall relationship with Syria. For him, its sudden shifts from enmity to amity make it questionable whether there was ever a clear strategic policy in Ankara on this issue. “One day, Turkey sent 100,000 soldiers to the border with Syria,” he recalls from when the Turkish military threatened to cross the border with Syria in 1998 if Ocalan was not extradited. “Then, [Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan called [Syrian leader Bashar al-] Assad 'my brother.' Now, it’s all a different story. These are very quick changes.”
While the former Mossad agent casts doubt on the wisdom of Turkey’s Syria policy, he speculates that Syria might not preserve its territorial integrity once the long and bloody uprising ends. “If the Syrian system falls into cantonization, there is a possibility even that Kurdish autonomy will take place in northern Syria,” he told Al-Monitor. “Assad will have to defend his Alawite minority. So, he may decide at one point — perhaps soon — to take all his loyal military and go to the Latakia region to establish an 'Alawistan.' The Druze then may get the center, but they consider themselves a nation with no country. The rest will be like no-man’s-land.”
As one who defines himself as the kingmaker between the Iraqi Kurdish tribes of Barzani and Talabani, Tsafrir also talks about his time as the Mossad chief in Iraqi Kurdistan in the 1970s. “I told them, ‘Look, your geographic situation is terrible and your internal fighting is killing your chances,’ Today, Talabani is the president, although without authority ... And Barzani is the president of the Kurdish region in Iraq, which is the real power.”
Although he refrained from making any comparisons or analytic assumptions about the division of the Iraqi Kurds, and what’s taking place today between the Syrian Kurds and the PKK, who are reportedly clashing with each other over territorial control in Syria, he told Al-Monitor, “Syrian Kurdish warriors are getting trained in Iraqi Kurdistan. The political situation in Syria is more difficult because there are too many Kurdish parties there. This is disadvantageous.”
Tsafrir also completely rejected any allegation that Israel had conducted any activity that would threaten Turkey’s territorial integrity or its security. “Turkish authorities criticized us. They asked, ‘What are you doing in Iraqi Kurdistan?’ And we told them that Iraq is important for Israel because it is an enemy state. We have to do what we have to do. We were sharing information with Turkish authorities. [Turkish National Intelligence Organization] MIT was grateful for it. We told them very clearly we wouldn’t interfere in Turkish-Kurdish affairs. And we did not.”
A recently retired MIT member knowledgeable on the Kurdish issue and Israel’s involvement in it has a different story. While speaking on condition of anonymity, he said, “Erdogan’s rhetoric could be a problem, but our relations with Israel would chill anyway because of their involvement in the Kurdish affairs. Our cooperation with Mossad was way deeper and stronger than the public ever knew. But when we realized what they were doing in Iraqi Kurdistan, we felt stabbed in the back. So we don’t see their engagement in Kurdish areas being any different from Erdogan’s involvement in Gaza. The only problem is that ours is done openly.”
Turkey is concerned that Israel has been working to help Kurds seek their independent Kurdistan. When I asked about the Turkish perception on this, however, Tsafrir decisively rejected again the implication of this suggestion. “Israel does not have a master plan. We’re so small. We don’t pretend to have master plans. Nobody can make such master plans. Look what is going on between Turkish authorities today and Barzani. Their cooperation and assistance to the Iraqi Kurds is deeper and more serious than ours. Would you ever have guessed that a decade ago?”
Tulin Daloglu is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. She has written extensively for various Turkish and American publications, including The New York Times, International Herald Tribune, The Middle East Times, Foreign Policy, The Daily Star (Lebanon) and the SAIS Turkey Analyst Report. She also had a regular column at The Washington Times for almost four years.