Israel sees benefits in independent Kurdistan: Experts

A Lebanese Kurd takes a selfie with a portrait of Massoud Barzani, Kurdish regional president, during a recent demonstration in Beirut in support of the referendum vote on Kurdish independence planned for Sept. 25 in the Kurdish region of Iraq. (AFP)
Updated 19 September 2017

Israel sees benefits in independent Kurdistan: Experts

JERUSALEM: Israel has become the only country to openly support an independent Kurdish state, a result of good ties between Kurds and Jews and expectations it would be a front against Iran and extremism, experts say.
Iraq’s Kurdish region plans to hold a non-binding referendum on statehood on Sept. 25 despite the objections of Baghdad and neighboring Iran and Turkey, as well as the US.
On Monday, Iraq’s Supreme Court ordered the suspension of the referendum as legal and political pressure mounted on the Kurds to call off the vote.
Israel became the first and so far only country to openly voice support for “the legitimate efforts of the Kurdish people to attain a state of its own,” as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last week, without specifying where and how.
Netanyahu’s statement came after remarks made earlier in the month by former general Yair Golan, who said he liked the “idea of independent Kurdistan.”
“Basically, looking at Iran in the east, looking at the instability (in) the region, a solid, stable, cohesive Kurdish entity in the midst of this quagmire — it’s not a bad idea,” Golan said at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
He also noted Israel’s “good cooperation with the Kurd people since the early 1960s.”
To Gideon Saar, a former Israeli minister, the Kurds are a minority group in the Middle East that, unlike the Jews, have yet to achieve statehood.
“The Kurds have been and will continue to be reliable and long-term allies of Israel since they are, like us, a minority group in the region,” he said.
“We need to encourage independence of minorities that were wronged by regional arrangements since Sykes-Picot over the past 100 years and have been repressed under authoritarian regimes, like Saddam Hussein’s in Iraq and the Assads in Syria,” Saar said.
The Sykes-Picot agreement was a World War I-era deal between Britain and France laying out boundaries in the Middle East.
Saar too noted Kurdistan’s efforts in pushing back Islamist forces.
“Looking at the Kurds’ location on a map you realize they can be a dam blocking the spread of radical Islam in the region, and in practice we’ve seen them exclusively fighting IS,” he said.
“Throughout the years the Kurds were never drawn to anti-Israeli or anti-Zionist perceptions and maintained good ties with the Jewish people and Israel.”
Ofra Bengio, who heads a Kurdish studies program at Tel Aviv University, noted that Israel supplied covert military, intelligence and humanitarian aid to Kurdistan in the years 1965-1975.
When Jews living in Iraqi cities were subject to harassment under Baath rule in the early 1970s, Kurds smuggled them out of the country to safety, she said.
Former Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani visited Israel, as did his son, current president of the Iraqi Kurdistan region Massud Barzani, and many Israeli officials have visited Kurdistan, Bengio said.
“I don’t know to what extent (Kurdistan) could be an ally since it would be pressed by all kinds of Arab factors, but at least it won’t be hostile toward Israel. That’s certain,” said Bengio, author of the book “The Kurds of Iraq: Building a State Within a State.”
“What’s more important, it would be a buffer against extremist elements — not just Iran, but also others,” she said, noting IS and Iraqi Shiite militias.
A Kurdistan which emphasises “secularity, democracy, moderation and acceptance of the other” would be “a positive element in a region that is becoming increasingly extremist and unstable,” Bengio said.
The US supports the current Kurdish autonomy in northern Iraq and relies on its forces in the war against Daesh, but has urged the Kurds to call off the potentially “provocative and destabilising” independence referendum.
To Saar, the former minister, Israeli leader Netanyahu should “use our leverage in the US to strengthen the Kurds in a very crucial moment of their national struggle.”


The Gulf’s war on smugglers

Updated 22 August 2019

The Gulf’s war on smugglers

  • Recent busts have included cash, cannabis and Captagon
  • Tech-savvy criminals play cat-and mouse with tech-savvy criminals

DUBAI: Bulk cash couriers, narcotics mules, counterfeit goods, wildlife trafficking —  spotting smugglers is all part of a day’s work for customs officials and law enforcement professionals in the Gulf.

Experts say that illegal trafficking in all its guises is bringing in billions each year for criminals worldwide, and the problem is increasing across the globe and the region.

In Saudi Arabia this week alone, officials arrested four passengers attempting to smuggle SR3.1 million ($830,000) in cash out of Madinah’s airport, while Saudi Arabian Border Guards intercepted two boats carrying large quantities of cannabis into the Kingdom. In a third bust, Saudi customs thwarted two attempts to bring more than 2.5 million Captagon (amphetamine) pills hidden in two vehicles into the Kingdom via a port.

Adel Hamaizia, a research fellow for the Middle East and North Africa program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs at the think tank Chatham House, told Arab News that money laundering,  or cash smuggling, is a major trafficking problem for the Kingdom and wider GCC.

Smuggling of cash is a major trafficking issue for the Kingdom and region, adding to the problem of capital flight.  

“One of the methods aiding capital flight in the GCC is old-school smuggling of cash as well as precious metals,” he said. 

But trafficking of drugs, fuel and even wildlife are also adding to pressures facing customs officials.

“Cross-border fuel smuggling from Saudi Arabia into its neighbors has remained an enduring feature. However, energy pricing reforms in the Kingdom in recent years have stifled smugglers’ margins if not canceled them out altogether,” said Hamaizia. “When it comes to drugs, countries of the GCC serve as consumption destinations and transit hubs, but not production spaces.”

Many countries in the region serve as transit hubs for drug smuggling as a result of geography, infrastructure, porous borders and lengthy coastlines, he said.

“Drugs smuggled into GCC states include qat, opium, cannabis, and Captagon (the family of drugs known as amphetamines). Captagon is one of the major drugs smuggled from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt. 

“Wildlife smuggling such as houbara birds, pangolins, ivory, rhinoceros horns and others are also common across Gulf states. Doha serves as transit hubs for birds, mammals, ivory, and reptiles being transported between Africa and Asia.”

The Gulf is a transit point for trade passing through the region, so any and all types of illicit goods are smuggled.

Channing Mavrellis, of the think tank Global Financial Integrity, which works to curtail trade-related illicit financial flows, also highlighted the growing threat smugglers pose in the GCC. “The Gulf is a transit point for trade passing through the region, so any and all types of illicit goods are smuggled,” he said.

Experts say smuggling tactics are becoming increasingly sophisticated. “The methods used depend largely on the type of good being smuggled, its quantity and the level of risk/enforcement,” said Mavrellis. “For bulk cash smuggling or drug trafficking in smaller quantities, someone may simply conceal the illicit goods on their body or in their luggage. For larger quantities, smugglers may conceal the goods in a shipment of legitimate goods.”

However, Hamaizia warned that criminals are adopting new high-tech tactics. “The smuggling of lightweight drugs is now often supported by drones,” he said.

Smugglers are also turning to social media. In a report — Social Media and Drug Smuggling — published in journals earlier this year, authors noted the trend, saying: “Social media can be used for legal or illegal purposes by many individuals. Some may use these applications for drug smuggling. For example, Saudi Arabia Directorate General of Narcotics Control has arrested eight individuals for drug smuggling through social media.”

Saudi Arabia’s Border Guards this week intercepted two boats carrying large quantities of cannabis.  (Social media photo)

According to customs law jointly adopted by GCC countries, illegal transportation of goods can carry a jail term of up to 15 years. 

Meanwhile, many criminals are attempting to take advantage of the busy transit routes in the region.

Hamaizia said: “Traffickers and smugglers often opt for busier international airports where they may benefit from sloppier screening. Smugglers also focus on connecting flights, where screening is rushed and even non-existent in some cases.”

At Dubai International Airport, one of the region’s busiest hubs, authorities caught more than 1,000 people attempting to smuggle illegal goods into the UAE last year, with officials employing a wealth of new technologies. 

These include the Ionscan 500 DT, which can detect a wide range of military, commercial and homemade explosives as well as common illegal drugs, and the Thermo FirstDefender, a handheld device used to identify unknown solids or liquid chemicals.

Mavrellis said the challenge at busy transit routes was to search and question travelers while keeping operations running smoothly. 

“High volumes of international trade can make detecting smuggling difficult as customs agencies must strike a balance between trade facilitation and enforcement. Basically, it is the problem of finding a needle in a haystack — but without taking too much time,” he said.