NOTE: Middle East Eye published an abridged version of this post.
Though it came as news to many, no one should be surprised in the aftermath of Iran’s attack on Erbil, that Israel maintained a secret base there. Six drones took off from Erbil and flew to Iran, where they launched a deadly attack on Iran’s drone facility in Kermanshah. Iran retaliated by launching ballistic missiles to attack the Israeli base.
The US consulate in Erbil is located next to the secret base. A knowledgeable Israeli source told me that Israeli intelligence detected the launch of the Iranian missiles and evacuated its personnel from the drone facility. It also warned the US diplomatic personnel and they too escaped. Otherwise, there would likely have been massive casualties at both locations.
History of Kurdish-Jewish Relations
Kurds and Jews have a centuries-old relationship. During the Crusades, the Kurdish warrior, Saladin, treated the Jews of the Holy Land humanely and employed the great scholar, Maimonides, as his personal physician.
After the State was founded in 1948, nearly 300,000 Kurdish Jews emigrated to Israel forming a major portion of the Mizrahi population. In 1965, Israel sent swashbuckling Brig. Gen. Tzuri Sagi to Iran to mount a campaign against Iraq, whose forces had struck deadly blows against Haganah forces during the 1948 War. Part of his mission was to approach Iraqi Kurds and encourage their fight for an independent Kurdistan. He befriended Mustafa Barzani, the Kurdish leader, at a critical moment. With just a few months before his peshmerga forces faced an attack by the Iraqi army, Sagi trained them and devised a battle plan which led to a major victory.
Over the next ten years (1965-75), the Kurds waged a war inside Iraq for independence. During this period, the Mossad supplied Kurdish forces with much of their weaponry. Barzani visited Israel in 1968 and 1975 and was welcomed with open arms by two different prime ministers. Sagi identified so closely with his Kurdish “brothers,” when the Kurds scheduled a 2017 independence referendum, he even declared: “I am a patriotic Kurd.”
After the fall of the Shah in 1979, the Kurds grew in strategic importance for Israel because they represented a powerful force in the region (in both Iraq and Iran), which could destabilize the new Islamist regime. This, in turn, stirred enmity among Iranian leaders to see Israel stirring up trouble inside its borders. They also feared the Kurds offering the Israelis a base with which they could monitor Iran and engage in military-intelligence operations. While Israel complains about Iran’s support for Hamas and Palestinian rights, it has only itself to blame: it has intervened in Iraqi and Iranian affairs for decades. Iran’s response to Israel’s violations of its sovereignty is only to be expected.
The Kurds have long appreciated Israel’s support in their struggle for a free Kurdistan. In addition. the Kurds look to Israel as a state whose citizens worked for decades to gain independence, first from a colonial power, and then among a sea of hostile neighbors. Israel is a model of what the Kurds envision for themselves.
A History of Israeli Intervention
Just about everyone knew that the Mossad maintained a network of spies in Kurdish Iraq, Azerbaijan and other sites (with some agents there even posing as CIA spies) bordering Iran. Back in 2005, Yediot Achronot reported that former Israeli commandos employed by security firms were “training” Kurdish forces in “anti-terrorism” techniques. Seymour Hersh reported on such operations in the New Yorker in 2004:
Israeli intelligence and military operatives are now quietly at work in Kurdistan, providing training for Kurdish commando units and, most important in Israel’s view, running covert operations inside Kurdish areas of Iran and Syria…The Israeli operatives include members of the Mossad, Israel’s clandestine foreign-intelligence service, who work undercover in Kurdistan as businessmen and, in some cases, do not carry Israeli passports.
…A senior C.I.A. official acknowledged in an interview last week that the Israelis were indeed operating in Kurdistan. He told me that the Israelis felt that they had little choice: “They think they have to be there.” Asked whether the Israelis had sought approval from Washington, the official laughed and said, “Do you know anybody who can tell the Israelis what to do? They’re always going to do what is in their best interest.” The C.I.A. official added that the Israeli presence was widely known in the American intelligence community.
From a number of these bases, intelligence missions and actual attacks against Iranian targets were allegedly planned and executed. Last year, an Iraqi outlet claimed that Iran had attacked just such a base in Iraq, though Kurdish and Israeli officials derided the report. But these new revelations confirm the truth of the original report. In the most recent attack last month, six drones from a secret Israeli base in Erbil launched a devastating attack on an Iranian facility in Kermanshah.
How did Israel procure such a base 800 miles beyond its own borders? Given the long history of Israeli support for Kurdish forces, it’s not terribly surprising that authorities in Erbil would permit Israel to turn a “military training” base into a full-fledged drone attack base. Not to mention that Israel would certainly be prepared to pay handsomely for the privilege.
Haaretz reports that those Israeli drones destroyed “hundreds” of Iranian UAVs in Kermanshah. In addition. an Israeli reporter known for his “close ties”–that is, a stenographer–to the IDF and Israeli intelligence reports that “perhaps” UK and US intelligence “participated” in the operation.
He used the popular military term “hybrid warfare” to portray this new escalation in Israel’s ongoing battle with Iran. The use of this terminology and his slap-on-the-back media puffery celebrating the Israeli attack, confirm that the reporter almost certainly used an anonymous military source for his reporting.
Neither story–claiming hundreds of Iranian were destroyed or that foreign intelligence agencies collaborated with the Israelis–is sourced. This, unfortunately, is common practice with Israeli military reporting. Given the stringency of Israeli military censorship and the dominance of the military-intelligence apparatus, this is no surprise. Though it does pose difficulties in judging the credibility of such reporting. Not to mention provoking skepticism in the quality of the information.
When approached, the CIA said it had no comment. The State Department said it doesn’t comment on intelligence matters. I responded by pointing out that Israel warned the US consulate of the attack in advance and they evacuated the facility. So the incident was clearly directly related to the State Department. The spokesperson never replied.
Drones Pose Threat of All-Out War
Some background and context is in order: earlier this week, Israel announced that last year an F-35 downed an Iranian drone carrying weapons bound for Hamas in Gaza. Unreported, was the news that the UAV had been shot down over Jordan and with Jordanian permission. And that the Jordanians had collected the remains and transferred them to Israel for analysis. Tikun Olam was the only media outlet reporting this, based on a well-informed Israeli source.
Separately, an Israeli air attack assassinated two senior IRG commanders in Damascus. Iran threatened retaliation for their murder. In fact, early reports claimed that Iran’s attack on Erbil was retaliation for this killing.
Last month, a Hezbollah drone penetrated Israeli airspace. According to Israeli media, the UAV loitered undetected over Israeli airspace for 40 minutes, then returned to Lebanon without being intercepted. If this account is correct, it shows Israeli defenses against such a drone attack are nowhere near as ironclad as the IAF has led the public to believe. Israel’s vaunted Iron Dome air-defense batteries and all of its anti-drone technology failed in spectacular fashion. A Turkish source broke the story that the Kermanshah assault, which followed the earlier drone penetration, was in retaliation for it; a warning to Iran that it would face such direct attacks on its soil should Hezbollah continue such provocative operations.
New: A senior US official briefed on the Erbil attack told my colleague @EricSchmittNYT the building struck by IRGC ballistic missiles also served as an Israeli training facility. The US consulate was not targeted but the IRGC doesn’t mind that it was nearby, the official said.
— Farnaz Fassihi (@farnazfassihi) March 14, 2022
Israeli media along with NY Times reporters sourced to US intelligence, confirm the presence of the Israeli base, which they called a “training facility.” This recalled Israel’s close relationship with Azerbaijan’s dictator, Aliyev, through which Israel took over an entire Azeri airfield to be used as a forward base in a future military assault on Iran. Some reports say that Israeli F-35s are now based there. Israel has also provided Azerbaijan with deadly drones which wreaked havoc with Armenian forces in the 2018 war in which Armenia was vanquished by Azeri forces. Thus, it makes perfect sense that Israel could overtly maintain such a presence in the Kurdish province.
Despite the bravado of the Kermanshah assault, and the celebratory nature of Israeli reporting such attacks, to quote Casablanca, “don’t amount to a hill of beans.” Yes, they deplete Iran’s drone capability. Seriously so. But not only does Iran have scores of other drone bases, it retains the engineering know-how to replenish the destroyed drones. Given Israel’s repeated sabotaging of Iran’s nuclear facilities, Iran has almost certainly built redundancy into all its military planning. It has a score of drone bases sprinkled around the country. No doubt, they all have UAVs they can summon to take the place of what was lost.
Further, this air assault will spur Iran to escalate research and production. It will encourage the building of more powerful, more lethal drones. Ones which have the range and firepower to seriously damage Israeli targets should the need arise. The Erbil attack also shows that Iran is fully capable of responding in kind to Israeli provocations. No longer can Israel attack Iran at will without paying a high cost.
Such tit-for-tat attacks may be satisfying to Israeli generals, spymasters, and their political overseers, but they have little strategic value. In fact, they escalate hostilities and lead to even more deadly attacks. All it takes is for one of them to go wrong, to cause an unintended disaster that provokes all-out war.
This is what happened in Beirut, when an Israeli attack destroyed a Hezbollah missile storage facility which, in turn, caused the massive explosion in a next-door warehouse which destroyed much of the city. Fortunately for Israel, its fingerprints were sufficiently disguised and enough blame could be spread to other culprits, that it escaped much blame–except here at Tikun Olam, which reported the story based on a highly-informed Israeli source.
Israel looks at drone warfare as a substitute for outright armed conflict. It permits Israel to attack Iran but without severe blowback. But what’s forgotten here is that drones are weapons. They are lethal. While they can destroy oil refineries. But they can also kill people. Lots of people.
Make no mistake–any Israeli miscalculation could bring it into direct conflict with Iran, in which there would be no limits to the destruction wrought by both sides. We think that Russia’s attack on Ukraine is horrific, and rightly so. But an Israel-Iran war could dwarf the destruction there.