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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Nation-building in the Mideast? What is needed is a Sunni home in Mesopotamia

By Jean Daudelin

In an enthusiastic endorsement of Barrack Obama’s new offensive in Syria, Brookings’ Kenneth Pollack argues that the key to the stability of the region lies in effective nation-building.

In the face of innumerable failures and, over the last 20 years, of the progressive reconfiguration of Germany, Central Europe and the Balkans around newly created — or re-created — ethnic states, Pollack still argues that multi-ethnic or multi-communal nation-building is possible in the Middle-East, from the outside and without rearranging the absurd boundaries of the region.

And yet, if it were successful (a big if), the most likely outcome of the strategy he outlines — arming a “moderate” Syrian opposition and helping it take control of the country against both Assad and IS — would be the rise to power, in Syria, of a Sunni regime that would be a mirror image of Iraq’s Shia one, and under which you wouldn’t want to be a minority: Alawite, Kurdish or Christian, in this case, instead of Kurdish and Sunni in Iraq.

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The Debate Over the Iraq Deployment: Confusion Reigns

By Steve Saideman

One refrain I heard during Canada’s time in Afghanistan was that Canadians were confused about Afghanistan. Well, after more than 12 years in Canada, I can say that I am still quite confused about Canada. How so? Last night, there was an emergency debate about Canada’s deployment of 69 troops (Special Operations Forces) to Iraq to do training. I think the point of the debate was to provide some clarity about this effort, but if so, it failed miserably.

The Liberals called for this debate and only had a handful of members show up. If this is something that is vital, which is kind of implied by the term “emergency debate,” one would expect a better turn out.

The New Democrats sent a significant number of members to show up and, mostly, demonstrated that it takes the Defence file more seriously than the other parties. Of course, they still provide more confusion than clarity about whether votes are required for deployments (they are not and have rarely taken place).

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Bomb, advise, assist: Why Obama has few options against IS

As originally posted by The Globe and Mail.

By Steve Saideman

There are many good reasons why President Barack Obama has been reluctant to get the U.S. directly involved in Syria’s civil war. The U.S. has already fought a number of wars and lesser conflicts in the Mideast since the terror attacks of September 11, with none leading to a satisfying outcome. This has exhausted the American armed forces, tested the patience of the American people, and cost trillions of dollars that can never be recouped. Until recently, public opinion was against any more conflict in or near Syria. Congress, too, has given Mr. Obama yet more reason to avoid involvement in Syria. The Republicans would prefer not to give him authority to act while complaining that the President is too weak and lacking leadership.

Leaving aside the complex domestic constraints, Mr. Obama faces a very serious problem in Syria: who to support? By fighting the Islamic State, Mr. Obama may end up supporting the Assad Regime. This is similar to the problem in Iraq, where helping Iraq might mean helping Iran. At least in Iraq there are two elements that the U.S. can support with only some qualms. The Kurds have a somewhat competent force, and they have done nearly all of the right things to suggest that they have popular support and, most important, are unlikely to turn their guns against the Americans. The government of Iraq could be an ally of the U.S. in this, especially since its interests are more directly implicated. The problem has been that the Shia-dominated government has broken the various agreements the U.S. had made with the Sunnis during the so-called Anbar Awakening. That movement was as – or more – essential to the decline in violence as the American surge.

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On Intervention: Iraq, not Syria?

By Steve Saideman

August is usually a slow news month, but certainly not this year.  The latest?  That Canada has sent transport planes to Iraq to help the Kurds as well as Iraq deal with the Islamic State movement.  It is only natural to ask the question: why here and not Syria?  Or, why Iraq and not place x, y, or z?

The obvious answer and also the correct one here is: because we can.  That is, Canada can help here and cannot really help that much elsewhere.  The second answer is always true: because there is discrimination in international relations.  That is, countries are selective about where they get involved, with some crises getting more attention and effort and others less.

The big difference between the situation in Iraq and the one in Syria is that there is a side that Canada, the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom and others can assist.  Focusing either on the Kurds or on Iraq itself, there are local allies that control territory and governments.  That outside support can take place with relatively little risk to the outsiders is a key ingredient.  That there is a local ally that one likes or can stomach is a second.  The Kurds have done a nice job since 2003 of positioning themselves as the most reasonable faction in Iraq (not that difficult a task) but also the most competent.  While there are always fears that supporting the Kurds in Iraq might have implications for Kurdish separatists elsewhere, that is dwarfed here by the threat posed by the Islamic State.  Together, these conditions mean that the outsiders can make a difference and would like to do so. 

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The ‘strong’ state: threatening or protective?

By Steve Saideman

A few years ago, I worked with a great group of scholars on a core problem for anyone addressing civil wars: how do you develop a strong enough government so that it can thwart evil doers and deter potential rebels while assuring the citizens that its coercive power will not be used against them? The book did not make a huge splash partly because it was over-priced and partly because we did not have many great solutions. I am thinking of that book now because I see the problem so vividly in each of the media spotlights of August 2014.

The fundamental problem in Iraq now is not that the government did not have enough coercive capability but that the governors were using that capability against the Sunnis. The Iraqi government could have assured the Sunnis that force would only be used against those who were opposed to the government. Instead, promises were broken, and the focus was on exerting dominance, which then reduced both the capacity and legitimacy of the army that the U.S. had trained and equipped. The Sunnis who had opted to join with the less-bad choice of the U.S. in 2007 have now opted for the Islamic State.

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