Iraqi Kurds vote for independence: What does this mean for Iraq’s neighbors, and especially for Turkey?

25 October 2017, 1728 EDT

This is a guest post, written by Margarita Konaev, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Center for Strategic Studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and Kirstin J.H. Brathwaite, Assistant Professor in the James Madison College at Michigan State University.

The referendum on independence of Iraqi Kurdistan and subsequent military clashes between the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and Baghdad are setting off alarm bells across the Middle East. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to cut off the flow of Kurdish oil exports, warning that the Kurds could “go hungry” as a result of economic sanctions. Military options, he added, were also on the table. The Syrians are refusing to recognize the results of the referendum. And at the request of the central government in Baghdad, Iran has closed the airspace to the Iraqi Kurdish area. The United States, United Nations, and even Russia have all expressed their disapproval of this “unilateral” move. In fact, the only country that welcomed the independence vote is Israel.

To a great extent, this staunch opposition to the referendum is rooted in the fact that Iraq’s neighbors all fear that the emergence of an independent Kurdish state will fuel separatism within their own borders and even ignite a rebellion. Our research shows that nationalist leaders are more likely to use force to try and preempt such a scenario from happening when faced with relatively large ethnic minority groups. Indeed, nowhere is fear of Kurdish separatism more acute than in Turkey, where the Kurds account for nearly 20% of the country’s overall population. With an unapologetically nationalist and often brutal leader in Erdogan, the Turkish government could therefore use the referendum crisis in Iraqi Kurdistan as pretext to intensify repression against its own Kurdish minority.


Threat Assessment, Nationalist Leaders, and the Ethnic Balance of Power

As Iraqi federal troops clashed with Kurdish Peshmerga forces in the contested Kurdish-held areas in northern Iraq, barely three weeks after the independence referendum, Damascus, Tehran, and especially Ankara were watching their own Kurdish populations with a growing unease. In a recent article we argue that when members of a transnational ethnic group such as the Kurds are involved in conflict in one state, political leaders in neighboring states draw information about the potential threat minority groups in their own country pose based in part on the behavior of their ethnic kin in the conflict-affected state. Two factors combine to cause these leaders to be especially apprehensive about the possibility that a nearby rebellion will inspire an uprising within their own borders, and in turn, to use violent measures to block this potential challenge from materializing – a nationalist ideology and the presence of a relatively large ethnic minority group.

From Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, nationalist leaders in particular tend to inflate the threat posed by competing ethnic groups to bolster their own popularity and consolidate political power. With the outbreak of ethnic violence in the region, ethnic minorities whose kin take up arms against the government of a nearby state become a useful target for nationalist leaders, as they can simply point to the neighboring country as evidence of the threat these groups presumably pose. In many cases, however, it is specifically those ethnic minority groups that make up a relatively large percentage of the national population that attract the wrath of nationalist leaders.

When it comes to politics in ethnically divided states, as the saying goes, size matters. Larger ethnic minorities pose a greater threat to the incumbent regime – both in terms of latent military capabilities and from a political legitimacy standpoint. Recent research in international relations suggests that leaders’ expectations of political survival, meaning how secure they feel in office, shape their behavior in the face of domestic opposition movements. Aware that allowing relatively large ethnic minority groups greater access to national politics would inevitably weaken their own position, leaders are therefore more likely to use repressive measures to block a potential uprising inspired by ethnic kin involvement in the nearby conflict than to risk losing power.


All Eyes on Turkey

Turkey is home to the region’s largest Kurdish population, and the Kurds are the largest minority group in Turkey. Our findings suggest that if the ongoing clashes between Baghdad and Erbil escalate into a full blown armed conflict, Erdogan’s nationalist government could attempt to exploit the situation to justify additional and more extensive anti-Kurdish measures within its own borders.

Why the dire predictions? For one, Erdogan’s previous experience with granting the Kurds greater political representation on the national stage has backfired. The Kurdish-dominated People’s Democratic Party (HDP) won sufficient seats in the June 2015 parliamentary elections to deny his Justice and Development Party (AKP) the majority it needed to consolidate presidential power through a constitutional amendment. AKP failed (or arguably, refused) to form a ruling coalition, and new elections were held in November 2015. That Erdogan’s AKP managed to regain the majority it needed to form a government alone in the November elections had a lot to do with a crackdown on HDP leaders and the resurgence of conflict against the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) in July 2015.

Furthermore, since the failed July 2016 coup, the Turkish government has become increasingly repressive of opposition groups and violent towards even peaceful dissent. Erdogan has also used the coup as an opportunity to target the Kurds; claiming that the Gulen movement (led by a longtime political rival who Erdogan blamed for the coup attempt) had links to the PKK, the government purged 11,000 teachers and dozens of elected officials in the Kurdish areas.

Finally, the resumed violence between the government and the PKK has heightened nationalist feelings in the Turkish society. This has allowed Erdogan to continue consolidating power as well as helped solidify AKP’s alliance with the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which rejects concessions to the Kurds. In short, it is unlikely that the government will adopt a more conciliatory approach anytime soon.

Those with eyes on the region might wonder how much worse can it get for Turkey’s Kurds.

Since the ceasefire between the PKK and the Turkish government broke down in July 2015, fighting in the majority-Kurdish southeast has claimed at least 2,748 lives; over 100,000 people have lost their homes, and up to 400,000 were displaced. According to The Early Warning Project, however, the estimated risk of state-led mass killings in Turkey has tripled since 2015. And that’s without accounting for the July 2016 attempted coup. Now that the independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan has triggered a military confrontation between Iraqi federal forces and Kurdish fighters, the next question is how these developments will influence the internal stability of Iraq’s neighbors. The most likely outcome is that Erdogan’s national government will capitalize on the referendum crisis to intensify repression against Turkey’s own Kurdish population – a sizable ethnic minority group that Erdogan sees as a major threat to his continued hold on power.