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David Ignatius

The Syrians Slip Away

By David Ignatius
Friday, March 18, 2005; Page A23

The most frightening spot in Beirut over the past 20 years was Syrian intelligence headquarters at the Beau Rivage hotel. This was a place most Lebanese mentioned only in whispers. When the local newspapers had to discuss something controversial involving the Syrians, they would often refer to them with circumlocution, "a regional power," say, for fear that the men from the Beau Rivage would come and get them. Or worse, come and shoot them.

So you have to imagine what it must have felt like Wednesday morning when Lebanese citizens saw that the Syrian intelligence officers had packed up and left the Beau Rivage before dawn -- tiptoeing away from a city they had intimidated for so long and from a people who had grown to despise them.


(Lebanese Citizens Celebrate In Front Of What Had Been Syrian In)

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"This was the interrogation room, the cockpit from which they ran all their operations," says Jamil Mroue, a Lebanese Shiite journalist who publishes the Daily Star. Mroue bravely ran articles about the Syrian occupation over the past few years, while the intelligence officers still lurked in the old hotel. "Nobody is unhappy that they are gone," he says. "But the Lebanese are concerned about what comes next."

The Syrians officially have left Beirut, retreating over the mountains toward the Syrian border. But a few secret operatives undoubtedly are still in the city. And, according to the Reuters news agency, 8,000 to 10,000 Syrian troops remain in the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon. They won't leave without continued, unyielding international pressure. Lebanon has been too rich a prize. And if Syria can't fight its political battles in Lebanon any longer, those feuds may come home -- and tear apart Syria's own fragile stability.

The Lebanese struggle for democracy and independence is still in its early, uncertain stages, but it's important to celebrate victories. And this week's departure of the Syrian moukhabarat, as the intelligence officers are known in Arabic, was an important moment. The iron curtain of fear dropped a bit; Lebanese people began to breathe more easily. And best of all, these small but exhilarating moves toward freedom were broadcast live on al-Jazeera, so that the rest of the Arabs could watch -- and dream.

To understand what the Lebanese must have felt this week as those Syrian trucks rumbled away from the Beau Rivage, you have to comprehend the bloody thread of assassination that has been woven through Lebanon's history since Syrian troops first intervened in 1976. This is history as nightmare, a story in which people who spoke out ended up dead.

The first great martyr was the Druze leader Kamal Jumblatt, who was assassinated near a Syrian checkpoint on March 16, 1977. He had publicly criticized the Syrian occupation and privately was more outspoken. "My father warned that if the Syrians came into Lebanon, they would never get out," his son Walid told me last month at his ancestral home in Mouktara. A portrait of Kamal loomed over us as we talked. Now Walid is risking his own life as the leader of the anti-Syrian opposition.

Those who protested the killings paid with their lives. A Lebanese journalist named Selim Lowzi, who dared to write critically about Damascus, was found dead near a Syrian checkpoint on Feb. 24, 1980. The fingers with which he had typed his articles were said to have been mutilated. A few months later, the leader of the Lebanese union of editors, Riad Taha, was assassinated.

Nobody was immune from the reign of terror. In May 1989 Sheik Hassan Khaled, the highest-ranking Sunni Muslim leader in Lebanon, was assassinated after he criticized indiscriminate Syrian shelling of Lebanese Christian and Muslim neighborhoods. In November of that year, Lebanese President Rene Moawad was killed by a car bomb after he disagreed openly with Damascus. And finally, last month, former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri was killed by a massive bomb that had been buried under one of Beirut's main thoroughfares.

The brazen murder of Hariri finally broke the curtain of fear and silence. Lebanese braved Syrian troops and marched in the streets by the thousands, in effect reclaiming their capital. Their message was simple: We aren't afraid of you anymore. We would rather die than keep living like this.

That was the moment the Syrian chokehold was broken. The retreat of the intelligence men from the Beau Rivage this week was inevitable -- once the Lebanese people had decided they wouldn't take it any longer. That's the astonishing fact about history. It seems to advance in big, inevitable movements, but it's actually made one person at a time.

davidignatius@washpost.com


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