What Do We Know About the Kurdish Referendum

by Stephen M. Saideman

Not much as I haven’t studied the Kurds.  McGill Phd David Romano has studied them a great deal, and there are others who are far more expert.  However, I do know something about separatism, referenda and irredentism, so here’s what I think:

  1. Separatism is not as contagious as advertised. The only folks who really get encouraged by an effort, successful or otherwise, are those who are kin.  Everyone else is far more focused on their own incentives and constraints.  They will learn from the examples elsewhere whatever lessons that support their pre-existing inclinations.  Yes, I was a fan of confirmation bias long before it was cool.
  2. The Sunnis will not be pleased.  It is hard enough for two smaller groups to attempt to balance the Shia in whatever semi-democratic institutions, but with Kurds leaving, Sunnis are dwarfed by Shia.  Hard to craft a democracy or anything else that gives Sunnis some chance of not being dominated.  So, yeah, Kurds leaving would screw Sunnis just as Slovenia screwed the Bosnians.  Everything old is new again.
  3. Irredentism is not in the cards.  Sure, one could talk about a Greater Kurdistan, but which Kurds get to rule it?  Milton (and Khan) was right: better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.  So, no, despite what Turkey might say, there will be no significant effort at Greater Kurdistan.
  4. I am not a fan of secession from advanced democracies–the costs of changing are too high and always underplayed by the secessionists, democracy depends on losers staying in the system, and usually there are ways to get what you need, if not what you want.  But the Kurds have some reasonable grievances, starting with how they can’t trust the Shia dominated government of Iraq.
  5. The timing makes sense–Kurdish strength is at an alltime high given that the US, Canada and others have armed and trained the Kurds.  Those efforts are already declining now that ISIS has been mostly removed from the Kurds’ neighborhood.  Iraq is still weak due to the ongoing war with ISIS, so now makes sense….
  6. But a referendum does not mean independence.  It can mean a process, a bargaining process that can take quite some time.  The question of violence really now depends on what the Iraqi government will do.  Governments generally don’t let secessionist regions leave–lots of work on this especially by Monica Toft.
  7. Countries will support whichever side they have ethnic ties (article version).  If no ties, then other interests, such as seeking stability will kick in.  The one thing, for damn sure, is that countries will not be deterred by their own vulnerability to separatism.
  8. Turkey will overreact.  Duh.

What does it mean for the war against ISIS?  Damned if I know.  Anyhow, my past work suggests this will be both better and worse than what the pundits say.  Woot?

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