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A Hostage in a Shadow War

Elizabeth Tsurkov’s disappearance in Iraq spotlights the Iran-Israel shadow war


he kidnapping of a young Russian-Israeli woman in Iraq has shed light on the complex web of operations in the shadow war being waged between Israel and Iran in the Middle East, and could have implications for US policy toward Russia on the ongoing war in Ukraine.

Elizabeth Tsurkov, 36, is believed to have been abducted in Baghdad in March. A dual citizen of both Russia and Israel, Tsurkov was in Iraq conducting research for her doctoral thesis at Princeton University. She likely used her Russian passport to enter Iraq, due to its mutual hostility with Israel.

Reports on her current whereabouts are murky: London-based Arabic news outlet Al-Sharq Al-Awsat has reported that some sources assert she is being held in Iraq by the Iranian-backed Shiite militia Kataeb Hezbollah (an Iraqi group distinct from the Lebanese terror organization), and others say she has been transferred to Iran.

Al-Sharq Al-Awsat quotes Iraqi government officials to the effect that Tsurkov’s kidnappers aim to use her as leverage for the release of Iranian operative Yousef Shahbazi Abbasalilo, whom Israel had apprehended in June for planning attacks on Israeli citizens in Cyprus. The Israeli government has so far remained silent these claims. But because Tsurkov’s abduction preceded Abbasalilo’s apprehension by three months, her kidnappers’ original intentions remain unclear.

Tsurkov’s various international affiliations weave together to create an unprecedented diplomatic scenario: a Russian-Israeli woman, in the midst of pursuing doctoral studies at an American university, taken captive in Iraq by a militia closely linked to the Iranian government.

The Tsurkov case came to light just a few weeks ago, when the geopolitical news site 19FortyFive broke the story. Tsurkov’s family, presumably on the advice of authorities, had been trying to keep the news confidential. Now that the case has been exposed, it implicates Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and US president Joe Biden, as well as Russian leader Vladimir Putin, in a complex web of intrigue.

Although she was there as a Russian national, the Kremlin more likely views the affair through the lens of strategic interest than as a humanitarian issue. Israel, on the other hand, sees its raison d’être as standing up for Jews being held captive, whatever the reason or location.

“I am confident that Israel is doing everything possible to secure her release,” says Shlomo Brom, a retired IDF brigadier general and current senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). “One could argue that this is not really Israel’s problem, but experience demonstrates that in such cases, Israel will always take action. That is the country’s ethical stance. That was the purpose of the State of Israel, to assist a Jew wherever they may be.”

Brig.-Gen. Brom takes pains to frame Israel’s stance in “ethical” terms, because technically Israel has no direct responsibility for this abduction. Israel considers Iraq an “enemy country,” and only someone with a special visa can travel there. Baghdad, for its part, does not recognize Israel and does not allow anyone with an Israeli passport to enter.

Treading Carefully

But Israel will have to take into account growing Shiite power in Iraq. Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr heads the majority bloc in Iraq’s parliament, and recently pushed through a law criminalizing any relationship, including commercial, with Israel. And the terrorist group widely blamed for the kidnapping, Kataeb Hezbollah, also identifies as Shiite. These forces therefore naturally align with Iran — but that does not necessarily mean Tehran is pulling the strings.

“It is true that they are aligned with Iran, but they have free rein in Iraq,” explains Shlomo Brom. “Just as Hezbollah receives support from Iran and but operates [independently] in Lebanon.”

Kataeb Hezbollah is not unfamiliar to the United States. The group attacked the US embassy in Baghdad on December 31, 2019, and in retaliation, the US carried out a drone strike that killed Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, then leader of Kataeb Hezbollah.

A statement issued by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s office shows the care with which Israel will have to tread in this matter to secure Tsurkov’s release. The statement describes Tsurkov as “an academic who visited Iraq on her Russian passport, at her own initiative, pursuant to work on her doctorate and academic research on behalf of Princeton University in the US. The matter is being handled by the relevant parties in the State of Israel out of concern for Elizabeth Tsurkov’s security and well-being.”

This wording telegraphs Netanyahu’s intention to bring Biden and Putin aboard in the negotiations with Baghdad, while making clear that Israel sees itself with a role to play in this matter.

Tehran may be hoping that Tsurkov’s situation, against the backdrop of its thwarted operations in Cyprus and its ongoing nuclear program, is successfully instilling the perception that any Israeli is in peril, regardless of location or intention.

Tangled Web

But the complexity of the case, embodied by Tsurkov’s dual nationality, also holds out the intriguing possibility of Israel managing to draw the US and Russia together to cooperate for her release.

Shlomo Brom — whose resume includes peace negotiations with the Palestinians, Jordan, and Syria, as well as Middle Eastern regional security talks during the 1990s — emphasizes the differences in approach between the US and Russia.

“The United States is usually willing to assist [in such cases],” he says. “However, with Russia, it depends on how Putin evaluates his own interests. There are no sentiments there, only interests.”

However, Brom does not rule out the possibility that Putin might come to the table, if he sees the opportunity to bolster his position in Ukraine. With Kyiv leveraging its newfound influence in Washington to exert unprecedented pressure on Israel, Putin might see a way to buy himself relief.

“It could serve Putin to secure some Israeli support on the issue of Ukraine, for example. If Israel were to actively support Ukraine, it could inflict significant damage on Russia through its technological assistance.”

Netanyahu has been facing international pressure for greater Israeli involvement in Ukraine. World leaders have grown weary of his chameleon-like actions, questioning Russia’s invasion in the media while avoiding active support for Ukrainian forces. Kyiv’s frustration has reached the point that its embassy in Israel stated, “The so-called ‘neutrality’ of Israel’s government is considered a clear pro-Russian stance.”

The Biden administration has also demanded that Israel more actively engage in the conflict, but Bibi has managed to stay on the periphery. This is due not only to his longstanding ties with Putin, but also to the formidable Russian military presence in Syria. If Putin were to negotiate the release of Elizabeth Tsurkov, it could force Netanyahu to stay out of the conflict.

And it wouldn’t be the first time that the Kremlin intervened on Bibi’s behalf; in 2019, Russian forces successfully recovered the remains of Sergeant First Class Zachary Baumel, who had been missing since the Lebanon War in 1982. At that time, Netanyahu admitted to personally requesting Russian intervention.

After the operation proved successful, Netanyahu declared to Putin, before the cameras, “I want to thank you, my friend, for what you have done.”

It remains to be seen whether Netanyahu is prepared to utter such words again, in an international context that may not be ready to celebrate them.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 969)

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