- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 27, 2004

The recent uprising by Syrian Kurds presents the United States and its allies with an opportunity to continue their mission of democratic reform in the Middle East that must not be missed.

Syrian Kurds began rallying earlier this month, partly in response to the new liberties now enjoyed by their ethnic brethren in Iraq. As might be expected from a dictator who maintains 11 different secret police organizations, Syrian strongman Bashar Assad’s response to the Kurdish protests has been brutal. Syrian security forces are estimated to have killed at least 30 Kurds and imprisoned more than 2,000.

Syria’s 2 million Kurds are strangers — and outlaws — in their own land. More than 225,000 are denied citizenship. Those “foreigners” are not permitted to travel outside of their homeland, where they face abject poverty and constant oppression. Their marriages are not recognized; their language is prohibited.

Saddam Hussein was equally cruel to the Kurds, and there are striking parallels between Ba’athist Iraq and Syria. Syria is controlled by the corrupt, autocratic Ba’ath Party, led by the despotic Mr. Assad, a member of the minority Alawite tribe. He may be hiding Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction; he does support terrorist organizations.

For those reasons, the hearts of Syrian Kurds — and the hearts of all the other unfortunates living under that oppressive regime — will continue to beat with the hope of having basic human freedoms. The United States must encourage those dreams. The situation in Syria seems an opportunity for America to harness what columnist Charles Krauthammer called “the will to freedom.”

Yet the response must be tempered. The United States must not draw Syrian Kurds into a war against the regime unless they can be backed by the full might of the U.S. military. A balance must be found between isolationism and interventionism.

Imposition of the penalties authorized under the Syrian Accountability Act would be appropriate. Last February, Secretary of State Colin Powell told the House International Relations Committee that the administration would make a decision on how to enforce the act in a matter of weeks. But last week, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli would only say that the decision would be made “in a timely way.” The delay should not continue much longer.

Sanctions would be a reasonable starting point, but they are unlikely to be sufficient. A direct statement from President Bush would be helpful — even if it is simply made in support of peaceful demonstrations. And the United States and its democratic partners should also consider more muscular measures.

The uprising of Syrian Kurds is an opportunity to support democracy in the Middle East that the administration should embrace. It is time to apply the unrivalled power now possessed by the United States in support of Syria’s Kurds.

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