Opinion: The Hypocrisy of“Self-Determination”


As the United Nations Security Council convenes to address the issue of the national status of Kurdish people at the height of profound regional changes, one notices two distinct arguments taking shape. The first, articulated by states such as the United Kingdom, is of aggressive international support for a new Kurdish state, particularly in Syria, “liberating” them from what they portray as a strangling “intersectional oppression” from the Syrian government and ethnic sub-state communities such as the Syrian Alawites. The second, from as incongruous bedfellows as the United States and the Russian Federation, believes in supporting the “national self-determination” of the Syrian state, and strongly opposes armed intervention. The U.S. even went so far as to suggest to a Le Figaro reporter that “larger nations should not be mettling in the affairs of smaller states” – a dramatic turn from its Iraq War-era policy of the past decade and one indicative of declining American power. This second group favors civil rights and development initiatives for the Kurds and frameworks for proportional representation and an international Kurdish assembly.

Two separate policy arguments to be sure – however, looking beyond measures of military intervention versus rural education programs, one notices that they are not so different as one might think. In reality, they are both about national self-determination, the rub being whose national self-determination the international community should prioritize, Syria’s (and the three other sovereign states with Kurdish populations) or Kurdistan’s. The Kurds, for sure, believe themselves to be a nation . They have a shared language, flag, culture, and a history which archaeologists have been able to trace back to the third millennium, B.C.E. They have vast potential for economic clout powered by the reserves of oil falling in their occupied territory, and they have begun constructing a military alliance of their international militias. Save for the fact that their political union currently has no borders, they would appear to be as much of a nation as France or Spain.

Syria, by contrast, has existed under its current borders since the end of World War I, when the victorious Entente powers divided the Ottoman Empire’s former territory into administrative units. Its population comprises, Arabs, Circassians, and Arameans, in addition to the Kurdish minority in the north. It suffers from great internal disunity on account of ethnic differences and has been wracked by civil war. The American Belfer Center think tank classifies it as a failed state.

Why prioritize a floundering polity over one that is unified and hungry? The reason is that the former has borders. If Kurdistan were to come into existence out of Syrian, Iraqi, Turkish, and Iranian territory, who is to say that nation-states should not be cleaved out of the lands of other existing sovereign countries? It is in the interests of sovereign states to support the concept of the national borders status quo for the sake of their borders’ own inviolability, regardless of how shaky their own claims to cohesive nationhood might be, lest they be forced apart. Rather than being a rallying cry for oppressed minorities, “national self-determination” has become a byline for the status quo. Which, of course, we should not expect the U.N. Security Council to dare touch.


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