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World Opinion Roundup by Jefferson Morley

Lebanon Putting the Squeeze on Syria

By Jefferson Morley
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 1, 2005; 9:54 AM

"The noose is tightening around Syria."

So wrote columnist Musa Keilani in the Jordan Times on Sunday. A day later, Lebanon's pro-Syrian government resigned -- and the noose got a little tighter.

Syria is fast losing ground in a geopolitical power struggle that its leaders did not see coming and may not survive, according to international online pundits. Since the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri two weeks ago, the government of President Bashar Assad has seen its political reality transformed.

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A month ago, Lebanon, on Syria's western border, was quiet. Hariri and his political allies muted any criticism of Damascus despite 15,000 troops stationed in Lebanon since 1989. To the south, Syria was offering to reopen negotiations with Israel with faint hopes of regaining the Golan Heights, Syrian territory occupied by Israel since a war in 1967. On Syria's eastern border, U.S. officials complained that Syria was harboring Iraqi insurgents, but Syria's security services cultivated favor with Washington by doing the dirty work of interrogating terrorism suspects.

Then came the Feb. 14 car bomb that killed Hariri and 13 other people. Hariri's allies blamed the assassination on Syria, and the long-tolerated Syrian military presence suddenly became intolerable to many Lebanese. The killing of Hariri, says Hazem Saghieh, columnist for the Beirut-based daily Dar al-Hayat was "Lebanon's 9-11," the violent attack that changed the way people think about their world.

"People's sentiments in Lebanon are turning into a political reality that is stronger than what the authority realizes and subsequently it is bigger than the authority's ability to contain it," wrote fellow commentator Walid Choucair.

The signs are all around.

In Brussels last week, President George Bush and French President Jacques Chirac who don't agree on much, agreed that Syria should withdraw its troops from Lebanon. That would deprive Syria of economic opportunities and its most valuable bargaining chip in negotiations with Israel.

As the Lebanese government prepared for a confidence vote on Monday, thousands of opposition supporters rallied around the parliament despite a ban on public demonstrations. Then Prime Minister Omar Karami and his Syrian-backed government, which had been expected to survive a no-confidence vote, resigned.

Popular sentiment is swinging further against Syria.

In Qana, a dusty village in southern Lebanon, a statue of Bashar Assad's father, Hafez Assad, was defaced by vandals, according to the Daily Star.

Even the support of Syria's long-time allies in Hezbollah, the Shiite political party and militia, is uncertain. Opposition leader Walid Jumblatt wants to talk with Hezbollah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah about joining the effort to get Syria out, according to the Daily Star.

Syrian commentators seem baffled by the government's predicament.

"What are they cooking up?" the editors of the state-controlled Syria Times ask of the United States and its allies in Lebanon and elsewhere. The demand that Syria leave Lebanon is "an unfair move that aims to tighten the noose of blockade around the Arab national movement that resists the expansionist aggressors" who have never abided by U.N. resolutions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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