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Chutes and Ladders in the Middle East
Kurds Defy Baghdad to Supply Israel with Oil

Over the past few month, as much as 77 percent of Israel’s oil has come from one source: Iraqi Kurdistan. The Financial Times reports that Israel may have spent as much as $1 billion on the region’s oil between May and early August, buying the energy through third party traders Vitol and Trafigura. Experts believe that Israel’s money may be contributing much-needed funds to the Kurdish government’s fight against ISIS.

Kurdistan is still part of the Iraqi state, and it is supposed to sell its oil through the Iraqi state-owned oil company. Last year, Baghdad successfully managed to block the sale of Kurdish oil to the U.S. by threatening a suit in a Texas court, yet Iraqi Kurdistan continues to push for control over its own oil deals, and has been selling not only to Israel but also to other countries, like Italy and Cyprus. Baghdad reportedly is aware of the sales, but is too occupied with other pressing issues to crack down. All it could manage at this time is a statement of protest.

In the background of this story lies Turkey. Kurdish oil is piped through Turkey and shipped out of Turkish ports. Ankara is trying to suppress Turkish-Kurdish and Syrian-Kurdish ambitions, but has nevertheless for some time now been underwriting Iraqi Kurdistan as a weak client semi-state (in part precisely by allowing them to transship oil to Turkish ports).

As TAI editor Adam Garfinkle recently noted, a large, unwieldy coalition is starting to coalesce in the Middle East. Anti-Iranian and generally anti-ISIS, the coalition is comprised of the Sunni Arab nations, Israel, and Turkey. It’s also riven with internal contradictions—the Egyptian and Turkish governments hate each other, for example, and the Saudis have gotten closer than ever to the Israelis even while all the Muslim nations officially maintain both antisemitic and anti-Israeli positions.

This news, therefore, seems of a piece: the Israelis and Kurds are both fortifying themselves for the struggles ahead against Iran and ISIS, respectively, and the countries are forging bonds in what increasingly seems to be a regional struggle. And yet, the pieces fit together awkwardly, due both to the anomalous status of Iraqi Kurdistan and the role Turkey is playing. It will take real skill to forge something durable out of these pieces—but as the oil deal shows, the opportunities are there.

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  • Ellen

    The Middle East was never the monolithic “Arab World” that European colonialists pretended it was. It is now going back to the Byzantine sort of place that it always was. The Arabs are increasingly becoming cannon fodder for various civilizational struggles going on, and their countries are merely way stations to creating a new political order.

    The European colonialists totally misunderstood which groups of people in the MidEast have staying power as national states. The Arabs clearly don’t. Turkey does, although it may lose Eastern Turkey someday to the Kurds. The Iranians do to some degree, although they may lose Western Iran to the Kurds as well. The Israelis and the Kurds apparently have staying power, much to the surprise of many analysts. The sad fate of the MidEast Christians may indicate that they do not have staying power. And the Arab Muslims fight on, as tools of external powers.

    Almost all the original borders will change in the next 10 years, and the fixation of Western liberals on the tiny little West Bank will appear to be the obsessive case of myopia that it always was.

  • Herzog

    Ellen, you’re needlessly buying into Middle Eastern Islamic and nationalistic anti-Western rhetoric by repeatedly denouncing the “European colonialists.” For starters, there hardly was such a thing as “European colonialism” in the ME: Britain and France were given mandatory powers over the Arab lands of the ME by the League of Nations after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire in the wake of WWI. Now that’s something different from “colonialism” from the very beginning.

    Also, your “pretended” implies that the Europeans actually knew better the identity mosaic that is the ME. But did they? How many experts in the ME were there in the chanceries of Britain and France, and in their universities? Who at the time had a clear understanding of Yezidis, Alawis, the variegated Arab Christian communities, the Shia in their diverse countries, the tribal structures, etc. ? Also, the chances of obtaining accurate info about all these features were much smaller then, by several orders of magnitude, than they are now.

    To the extent that Britain and France really may have been guilty of a leveling view of a “monolithic Middle Eastern Arab World,” one must also consider the possibility that they themselves were duped into that view by the region’s Sunni Arab Muslims who, as the region’s majority community, still today try to encourage and spread a discourse that at best marginalizes all the region’s other identities, and at worst fantasize about and eliminating them.

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