Politics & Policy

Syria’s Times

Bashar Assad can't be too comfortable.

You have to hand it to Syrian Baathist dictator Bashar Assad. He must be some kind of political savant. Who else could have brought together the United States and France–not to mention the European Union and the United Nations–in opposition to his country’s policies? On Monday, Presidents Bush and Chirac released a joint statement calling for the “full and immediate implementation of UNSCR 1559 in all its aspects, including its call for a sovereign, independent, and democratic Lebanon as well as for the consolidation of security under the authority of a Lebanese government free from foreign domination.” For “foreign domination” read “Syrian occupation;” Resolution 1559, adopted last September, is aimed at the 14,000 Syrian troops that have been occupying the country for nearly thirty years. Imagine that, a Joint US-French communiqué. We haven’t seen many of those since the Battle of Yorktown.

The assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri on February 14 was the latest in a decades-long series of political killings in Lebanon with Syrian fingerprints. Damascus saw Hariri as a potential leader for an emerging anti-Syrian united front of Christian, Druze, Sunni, and others factions. Elections are scheduled for late April, and while they cannot be free and fair while the Assad regime controls the levels of power in Lebanon, the opposition hoped at least to focus the world’s attention on their plight. Democracy has momentum, and exposing a sham election for what it is would build their political capital. Perhaps the Assad regime believed that removing Hariri would break up the resistance, but it had the opposite outcome. The assassination solidified opposition unity and made certain that the upcoming elections would be a cause of global concern. One Lebanese newspaper compared the unifying effect to the impact of September 11 in this country. President Bush has seized this strategic opportunity and made the election date the deadline for Syrian troop withdrawal. He stated that the elections could be “another milestone of liberty” sans Syrian obstruction. Secretary Rice threatened a variety of sanctions if Syria chose that route, and stated that the military option was not off the table.

Meanwhile the Lebanese opposition has declared a peaceful intifada against the Syrian occupiers and their puppet government. The largest protests in decades have hit the streets of Beirut, and candlelight vigils have been held for Hariri since his funeral. Oppositionists inspired by the recent example of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine erected a tent city in downtown Beirut, which is growing by the day. The protesters say they will remain there until Lebanon has been freed. But peaceful protests only work when facing a regime that will not use force. Witness Tiananmen Square. Syria could support the Lebanese government in cracking down on the protesters, use its agent of influence Hezbollah, or utilize any of the other terrorist groups it supports. A few car bombs in the tent city should make the point. The opposition is reaching out to Hezbollah to join the cause, but it is hard to see why they would. Hezbollah leader Sayyed Nasrallah has warned of a return to civil war, or at least massive counterdemonstrations, unless the opposition agrees to dialogue. Clearly, there are potentially dangerous times ahead. Nevertheless, freedom for Lebanon has move abruptly to center stage in the global debate, and it will be difficult for Damascus to resist the level of international pressure that is certain to develop over the coming weeks. The people of Lebanon have been waiting for this opportunity for a long time; they are not likely to fold so long as they know the world is on their side.

A few months ago the Assad regime sent out feelers that perhaps it was time to begin making deals. This made sense for several reasons. With the fall of Saddam’s regime Syria is surrounded by unfriendly states. The new peace initiatives between Israel and the Palestinian Authority undercut the central pillar of Syria’s foreign policy. Syria is a known sponsor of international terrorism and has active missile programs, both of which are activities the United States views critically. A strategic opening of the sort Libyan leader Muamar Khadaffi achieved would solve many of Assad’s problems.

Instead, he has moved in the other direction and taken actions calculated to provoke the United States. Syria and Iran recently announced a united front, though stopped short of stating against whom or what they are uniting. It is not hard to figure out. Syria has been on the front lines resisting the move to bring democracy to Iraq since Operation Iraqi Freedom began. Marines fought Syrian nationals in the swamps southeast of Baghdad. A source who was on the scene at the time told me that the last-ditch defenders of Saddam Hussein’s main palace were Syrians. Syrian- and Iranian-backed Hezbollah snipers deployed to harass Coalition forces engaging in urban fighting in the months after the cessation of main combat operations. Today Syria remains a major transit point for men, money, and material going into Iraq in support of the insurgents. Bluntly, Damascus is helping kill Americans on the battlefield. One wonders how long this will continue before the expression “regime change” begins to be linked reflexively with Bashar Assad. The situation in Lebanon may soon be the least of his worries.

James S. Robbins is senior fellow in national-security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council and an NRO contributor.

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