Back to Syria -- And Beyond
The final withdrawal of the Syrian army from Lebanon yesterday marks a victory for what is known as "soft power." The Syrians were driven from Lebanon not by force of arms but by a nonviolent Lebanese independence movement, a United Nations diplomatic effort and a broad coalition of allies organized by the United States and . . . yes, France.
The amazing denouement in Lebanon suggests that the Bush administration may have learned some lessons from the turmoil of postwar Iraq, however loath the president might be to admit it. Senior administration officials privately explain that their strategy for Lebanon has been to maintain a low-key American role and let the U.N. mediator, Terje Roed-Larsen, do the talking. The presence of nearly 150,000 U.S. troops nearby in Iraq obviously provided leverage, but this hard military power reinforced the softer diplomatic approach rather than substituting for it.
Nobody could have scripted the chain of events that led to the departure of the last of the Syrian troops. It's a story of Syrian blunders, Lebanese resolve and a surprisingly tough stance against Damascus by other Arab nations. The Lebanese independence movement was galvanized by the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, but it had staying power because it represented a deep yearning among all Lebanese for political change. It was George Bush's good luck that this Lebanese uprising coincided with his calls for Arab freedom and democracy.
The diplomatic process that led to eventual Syrian withdrawal began last June, with a meeting in Paris. Top U.S. and French officials discussed reports that the Syrians might try to force a change in the Lebanese constitution to allow their handpicked president, Emile Lahoud, to remain in office. French-American relations were still raw over Iraq, but the two countries agreed to work together to draft a U.N. resolution calling for Syrian withdrawal. At that time, the goal was simply to deter the Syrians from meddling further in Lebanon; few imagined that they could be forced to pull back an army that had occupied Lebanon since 1976.
The United States had its hands full in Iraq, so the French took the lead in rounding up support for what became U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559. They persuaded the Arab representative on the council, Algeria, to abstain, and also lobbied China and Russia. The resolution passed in August; the Syrians defied the growing international pressure and imposed Lahoud for another term. Hariri and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who until mid-2004 had accommodated the Syrian occupation, moved into open opposition. The Syrians made unsubtle threats against the two, but they didn't back down.
Hariri was killed Feb. 14 by a massive car bomb in the center of the sparkling new downtown Beirut he had helped build. To Lebanese, it seemed a classic Syrian move -- an attack so blatant and audacious that it would silence any opposition. But this time the Lebanese wouldn't be intimidated. They demanded an international investigation of Hariri's death and withdrawal of the Syrian army. If the Syrians plotted Hariri's death -- and that still isn't proved -- it was their second colossal mistake.
Syrian President Bashar Assad initially hoped he could evade international pressure through dickering and delay. He sought support from Saudi Arabia and Egypt, but Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak told him he had no choice but to comply with Resolution 1559. The Syrians suggested a partial withdrawal, but they were rebuffed; they proposed dialogue, but again they were rejected. The U.N. mediator, Roed-Larsen, signaled that if Damascus didn't comply, the next step would be sanctions or even stronger measures.
Lebanon and Syria now offer two new fronts in the broader battle for political change in the Arab world. In Lebanon, U.S. and European aid will be crucial in keeping a fractious coalition together through next month's elections. A new Lebanon would be a model for the secular, multi ethnic democracy that is proving so difficult to establish in Iraq. But without a strong Lebanese army (which the French and other Europeans could help train) and a gradual disarmament of the Shiite militia Hezbollah, this new Lebanon will be stillborn.
What's ahead in Syria is even more intriguing. Intelligence analysts aren't sure whether Assad is an inept bungler or really has a plan for change in Syria and will use the Lebanon disaster as an opportunity. A big conference of the Baath Party is scheduled for June, and Syrians say Assad has been signaling that he will use it to end one-party rule and allow greater freedom. Is Assad sincere about these changes? Is he politically powerful enough to pull them off? Fasten your seat belts for the next wild ride on the Middle East roller coaster.