Israel’s love of Kurds weaponized by their foes

Israel's support of Kurdish autonomy in Syria is not always welcomed — at least publicly — by Syria's Kurds.

al-monitor Israelis protest in support of the Kurdish people opposite the Turkish Embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel, Oct. 13, 2019.  Photo by REUTERS/Amir Cohen.

Dec 13, 2019

On Oct. 10, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “Israel strongly condemns the Turkish invasion of the Kurdish areas in Syria and warns against the ethnic cleansing of the Kurds by Turkey and its proxies.” He continued, “Israel is prepared to extend humanitarian assistance to the gallant Kurdish people.”

Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely informed the Knesset Nov. 6 that Netanyahu’s offer had materialized. “Israel has received many requests for assistance, mainly in the diplomatic and humanitarian realm," she said. "We identify with the deep distress of the Kurds, and we are assisting them through a range of channels.” An Israeli Foreign Ministry official, speaking not for attribution, insisted that the aid was “purely humanitarian” when pressed by Al-Monitor for clarification. But he gave no further details.

Syria’s Kurds, still reeling from Turkey’s bloody Operation Peace Spring, should have felt buoyed by the Jewish state’s declaration of solidarity. But they didn’t. If anything, many felt it made matters worse. 

“I don’t understand what they are trying to do. They are making our enemies even more crazy,” said an official with the US-backed and Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which are being targeted by Turkey.

His reaction, shared by fellow Syrian Kurdish officials, was not an expression of antagonism for Israel, but rather of dismay. Netanyahu was likely trying to boost his own sagging ratings by airing support for a group that is popular in Israel as he did back in September 2017, when he declared that Israel "supports the legitimate efforts of the Kurdish people to achieve their own state” just days before the Iraqi Kurds’ ill-fated referendum on independence, which was bitterly opposed by Ankara, Baghdad, Tehran and Washington. 

Ofra Bengio, the head of the Kurdish studies program at Tel Aviv University, believes Netanyahu was not just electioneering this time. “Netanyahu became vocal regarding Israel’s support to the Syrian Kurds because of very serious strategic concerns over the pro-Iran axis and Iran’s possible entrenchment in Syria," she said. "There is also genuine concern for the fate of the Kurdish autonomous entity.”

She continued, “Similarly, one cannot exclude the possibility that the Kurds of Syria themselves have approached the Israelis or the Jewish lobby in the United States for such support.”

Syrian Kurdish officials interviewed by Al-Monitor deny reaching out to Israel. 

Bilal Wahab, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said, "The Kurds and Israel remind me of Romeo and Juliet. They survive for as long as their love remains secret. Once it's exposed, they die.”

Israel and the Jewish people have a long history of standing with the Kurds. It's a support stemming from decades of shared genocidal persecution at the hands of their respective oppressors. Pragmatism plays a part, too. Israel views the Kurds as a helpful ally against its Arab and Iranian adversaries, and vice versa. The Jews managed to build their own state; the region’s 40 million or so Kurds have yet to succeed. 

Israel’s backing, starting with an alliance with late Iraqi Kurdish leader Mullah Mustafa Barzani, is by now an open secret, but one that was never publicly articulated — and for good reason. Israeli support is routinely weaponized against restive minorities in countries hostile to the Jewish state as "evidence" of their treasonous nature, with Barzani and his powerful tribe labeled “crypto Jews.” Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan charged that Netanyahu's enthusiasm for Kurdish independence proved that it was "a Mossad plot."

“Israel knows very well that if its support for ethnic minorities in countries like Iran or some Arab countries that are opposed to it becomes public, this can have a nuclear bomb effect,” said Asso Hassan Zadeh, a leading figure in the Kurdistan Democratic Party-Iran, an Iraqi Kurdish armed opposition group that is based in Iraqi Kurdistan. “There is a deep sympathy among the Kurds for Israel, but any formal expression of this has been avoided. Prudence has prevailed on both sides.” Or rather, it did.

In their quest to secure their future following President Donald Trump’s wavering over the presence of US forces in Syria and the ensuing Turkish aggression, Syrian Kurdish leaders took up an offer from Moti Kahana, a notoriously indiscreet Israeli American entrepreneur and self-styled humanitarian.

News of a connection first emerged July 15, when Lebanon’s pro-Hezbollah al-Akhbar newspaper ran a story headlined, “Eastern Syria’s Oil Is in Israel’s Hands.” The story claimed that Ilham Ahmed, the star diplomat of the Syrian Kurdish administration and president of its political arm, the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), had signed an agreement with Kahana to market Syrian Kurdish oil. Al-Akhbar published a copy of the purported agreement with the SDC letterhead and Ahmed’s alleged signature. 

Al-Akhbar stated: “Members of this [pro-US] faction are convinced that their survival, and the implementation of their designs, are connected to American protection. They are convinced there is no way to preserve this protection except for developing relations with Israel, as Israel is the closest route to Washington’s heart, where the influence of the Zionist lobby is high, especially among decision-makers.”

The Syrian Kurds’ control over much of the country’s oil wealth has become a radioactive topic ever since Trump announced that US forces would be remaining in eastern Syria to “keep the oil.” 

As news of the alleged deal seeped into the English-language press, the SDC’s Washington mission published a Nov. 11 statement that the news was “fabricated.” There had been no deal. Ahmed was quoted as saying “there will be no relationship with Kahana in the future.”

Subsequent coverage of the affair suggested that Ahmed’s contact with Kahana was minimal.

In a series of interviews with Al-Monitor, Kahana insisted the letter was authentic and that he had received two separate versions, one signed by Ahmed and one by Jihad Omar, an official in the foreign relations department of the Syrian Kurds’ autonomous administration. Omar denied any knowledge of the accord which would have flown in the face of US sanctions on Syria.

Kahana maintained that he was driven by compassion. “[The Kurds] are the only minority in the Middle East that live on a piece of land, that don’t have a right to that land. They’re the only one with no rights. And I really believe in their right to their own independence.” He conceded, however, that, “Of course as a business[man], I’m going to make a shitload of money from the oil, but remember, I never even knew about the oil.” Kahana said his initial contacts were about delivering humanitarian aid to the Syrian Kurds, however and that his main goal is to steer the Syrian Kurds away from the regime and Iran.

Al-Monitor’s conversations with Kahana, the SDC, SDF and senior figures in a Kurdish group affiliated with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) revealed that Kahana’s engagement with the Kurds extended beyond what has already been exposed.

Contact between Kahana and the Syrian Kurds started when he was introduced to a mysterious Kurdish woman who went by the code name “Neirouz," among several others.

The woman, who lives in London and whose real identity Kahana refused to reveal, introduced him virtually to Ahmed in 2018, saying he could be helpful to their cause. 

Throughout 2018, Kahana and Neirouz discussed how Kahana could help secure US visas for top members of the Kurds' autonomous administration and SDF-linked military commanders, who provided her with copies of their passports. Kahana shared images of their passports with Al-Monitor. They all appeared authentic.

The Syrian Kurds were already jittery about Trump's desire to withdraw US troops from Syria. When he first announced in December 2018 that he would do just that, panic struck. Ahmed decided another trip to Washington was in order. Neirouz urged her to take advantage of Kahana’s connections to the Jewish lobby in the United States to mobilize its help in getting Trump to reverse his decision. She apparently gave it some consideration.

Ahmed arrived Jan. 23 at JFK Airport on board Qatar Airways Flight 451. Kahana picked her up and drove her to meet his lawyer, Robert Seiden, to discuss the possibility of his law firm representing the SDC pro bono.

The following day, Kahana took Ahmed to meet with Pierre-Christophe Chatzisavas, a member of the EU mission to the UN. He confirmed that he “was in the same room as Ahmed and Kahana.” The purpose, Chatzisavas told Al-Monitor, was to get a briefing on recent developments in northeastern Syria. He said Ahmed was “very professional.” Kahana, on the other hand, was “a loose cannon” with “his own agenda” who “we wouldn’t work with.”

That afternoon, Kahana drove Ahmed from New York to Washington DC. They communicated throughout the journey via Neirouz, who translated from English to Kurdish over speakerphone. 

Numerous exchanges over a WhatsApp chat group initiated by Neirouz to organize Ahmed’s schedule in advance of her trip include references to Malcolm Hoenlein, the influential executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Neirouz and Kahana tell Ahmed they need to get together and set up a meeting Jan. 28 in New York. Neirouz writes: “This guy is the King of the Jews in America.”

But Ahmed had second thoughts. She didn’t go to the meeting and pulled out of the group chat, severing all ties with Kahana.  Neirouz showed up at the meeting instead, delivering a speech to the Jewish bigwigs. Kahana showed Al-Monitor a photograph of a women he said was Neirouz speaking at a podium. Honlein was seated to her left in front of a banner that said "Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations."

Turkey’s invasion, meanwhile, achieved what no lobbyist could engineer: It mobilized an outpouring of bipartisan support for the Syrian Kurds which — together with the Pentagon pushback — prompted Trump to reverse his withdrawal plan.

Ahmed confirmed to Al-Monitor that Kahana picked her up from the airport, introduced her to Seiden and Chatzisavas​, and driven her to Washington DC.

She denied, however, that there was any kind of oil deal, either verbal and written.

Ahmed said that Neirouz had made the introduction. “She is a Kurd from [the Syrian province of] Hasakah. She came to Rojava [Syrian Kurdistan] and told us she could help. She is a Kurd. We listened and said OK." Ahmed continued, “But we came to realize things were not what they seemed. They were not leading to anything positive. We learned of his connections with the Syrian opposition. We stopped with Kahana. We have no relations with Neirouz either. None.”

But an undaunted Kahana had even bigger plans. He believes Syrian oil can finance humanitarian aid and also help grease a grand political bargain between Turkey and the PKK, which has fought the Turkish state for the past 35 years.

The PKK has close links to the Syrian Kurds who run the autonomous administration. Many, including Ahmed, pledge allegiance to imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, who directed his campaign against Turkey from Syria before Syrian authorities kicked him out. He was arrested in 1999.

Kahana said he had met with a pair of senior PKK-linked officials in Paris and Rome this year to discuss getting the PKK off the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations. In exchange, the PKK would lay down its arms and call off its fight. This would weaken Turkey’s argument that the Syrian Kurdish administration’s links to the PKK meant they were “terrorists” as well. 

“Everybody wants the bad guys to become good guys," Kahana said. "Nobody wants the bad guys to stay bad guys, right? It's all good for humanity anyway, if the bad guys decide to change their behavior.” 

Kahana offered to assemble a legal team in the United States to work on the case. Both of the PKK-linked officials confirmed to Al-Monitor that they had met with Kahana. One of the officials, who met Kahana in Paris in April, acknowledged that the issue of the PKK's removal from the US list had come up during the meeting. “We had wanted to do this in the United States for years but could not afford the legal fees,” she said.

She denied, however, that the matter went any further.

The second official denied talking about the PKK: “A mutual friend introduced us so we agreed to meet.” 

He said Neirouz had been present at the meeting in Rome, but that he had “no idea who she works for” and that all he recalled of her was that she had a slight limp. “It might have been because of her shoes.”

Kahana denied that he ever presented himself as acting on behalf of the Israeli government or any other entity. “100% not true," he said. "I never, ever said that to no one in the last eight years in Syria.” Kahana was alluding to his previous “freelance” rescue missions in Syria, which he zealously publicized, drawing the ire of the Israeli government. 

His utter lack of discretion apparently caught Iran’s attention as well. According to one current and another former US government official, who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, the Iranian regime had known about the Syrian Kurds’ dealings with Kahana “for quite a while” but had “sat on the information while threatening to release it and malign the SDC [and] Ahmed personally.”

A source who has known for Kahana for years told Al-Monitor, “The episode reveals a general problem of people with money being able to buy access. [Kahana] is a well-intentioned person, but he loves media attention and is reckless. His actions have proven that time and again. No one should be getting involved with him given his track record.”

It remains unclear who leaked the story to al-Akhbar. Either way, the Kurds' enemies are primed to exploit the slightest connection between the Kurds and Israel. Aykan Erdemir, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Al-Monitor, “Most Middle Eastern demagogues who make essentialist and conspiratorial statements about the Jews and Kurds hope that scapegoating these communities would divert their voters’ attention from their own mismanagement and corruption. Anti-Semitic and anti-Kurdish conspiracies continue to be the top refuge of authoritarian and kleptocratic regimes." Kahana, albeit unintentionally, keeps giving them more fodder.

Editor's note: Dec. 15, 2019. This article has been updated since its initial publication. 

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