- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Inspired by the liberation and liberalization of Iraq, the fragile seeds of freedom are growing in other areas of the Middle East. Last week, Syrian Kurds began rallying to receive the same liberties enjoyed by their ethnic brethren in Iraq, only to face a wave of repression. To nurture those democratic desires, President Bush should stand up for the Kurdish dissenters — condemning the crackdown and giving public support to the rights of Kurds to assemble peacefully and address their grievances to the government.

Syrian Kurds enjoy few civil or political liberties. About 225,000 of them are designated foreigners, and about 25,000 are unregistered, not even permitted to own property or travel abroad. According to a statement signed by representatives from several progressive Syrian groups, the reason for their protests is “the absence of democracy and public freedoms, the spread of corruption, and a policy of discrimination towards Kurdish citizens.” The Syrian state-run newspaper Al-Thawra editorialized that the violence had been caused by “intriguers” driven by “foreign pressures.”

The foreign pressure was the signing of Iraq’s interim constitution, which gave official recognition to the rights of Kurdish Iraqis to live with their fellow citizens in dignity and in peace. Among other things, the document establishes the Kurdish language as one of Iraq’s official tongues, bans discrimination on the basis of “gender, nationality, religion or origin” and establishes the right to “freedom of thought, conscience, and religious belief and practice.”

The Syrian government has granted none of those rights, and its crackdown on the dissenters has been cruel. Syrian security forces have reportedly killed at least 30 Kurds, wounded 250 and arrested hundreds. There are also reports that Kurds in Iran — who have also been discriminated against — have rallied for similar reasons and have been suppressed in equally heartless fashion.

So far, the United States has been cautious, calling upon Syria to “exercise tolerance” and “refrain from … repressive measures.” It must give stronger support to the deeds Kurds are doing for freedom. As James Russell Lowell wrote more than a century and a half ago in his anti-slavery poem “The Present Crisis”: “When a deed is done for Freedom, through the broad earth’s aching breast/Runs a thrill of joy prophetic, trembling on from east to west/And the slave, where’er he cowers, feels the soul within him climb/to the awful verge of manhood, as the energy sublime/Of the century bursts full-blossomed on the thorny stem of Time.”

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