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A Tyrant Cornered

Thursday, March 3, 2005; Page A24

AS THE MIDDLE East changes all around him, Syrian President Bashar Assad still tries to play by the old rules. He figured he could sponsor terrorism in Iraq and Israel and thereby block progress toward democracy and peace. He calculated that the car bomb that killed former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri -- whether or not it was planted by his agents -- would stop the gathering Lebanese independence movement. He was wrong: In each case, such tactics have been defeated by an emerging Arab movement of people power. The 8 million Iraqis who turned out to vote, the Palestinians who have overwhelmingly supported the cease-fire with Israel, and the tens of thousands of Lebanese who have been marching and camping in the center of Beirut have all proved more potent than assassinations and suicide bombs. If Mr. Assad will not yield to the new political realities they are creating, he will place his own regime at risk.

There is no sign that the crude and callow tyrant gets the message. His response to the turmoil set off by his own criminal policies has been to adopt the standard formula of beleaguered Middle Eastern autocrats: appease the superpowers, blame Israel and appeal for "Arab unity." On Sunday, in a gesture aimed at Washington, the Syrian government abruptly turned a top leader of the Sunni insurgency over to the Iraqi government; the next day Syria's chosen prime minister in Lebanon resigned. Mr. Assad, meanwhile, gave an interview to an Italian newspaper declaring that Syrian troops could not withdraw from Lebanon, as required by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, in the absence of peace with Israel. His defenders appealed to the dictator-dominated Arab League to interpose itself between the United Nations and Damascus, so as to fashion an "Arab solution" -- that is, one that essentially preserves the status quo.

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The Bush administration and the French government rightly sense an opportunity to brush off these maneuvers and side with the mobilized people of Lebanon. On Tuesday the two governments issued a statement again demanding "the immediate withdrawal of all Syrian military and intelligence forces from Lebanon" as well as "free and fair parliamentary elections this spring, bolstered by an international observer presence." The unlikely but potent U.S.-French alliance can bring extraordinary pressure to bear on Damascus if it chooses: The freezing of a European Union economic agreement and U.N. sanctions are among the available tools. The West can also support monitors or peacekeepers in Lebanon to fill any gap left by a Syrian withdrawal. The potential payoff is a big one: another free election in the Arab world this spring, an independent Lebanon and, just possibly, a change in Syria. The old, corrupt order in Beirut, as in Baghdad, is crumbling. Whether Mr. Assad survives its passing may depend on whether he adapts in time.

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