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As Lebanon Goes . . .

A vigil for one of the victims of the bombing that killed Lebanese lawmaker Antoine Ghanem last month.
A vigil for one of the victims of the bombing that killed Lebanese lawmaker Antoine Ghanem last month. (By Grace Kassab -- Associated Press)

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By Jackson Diehl
Monday, October 8, 2007

Lebanon has long been described as a theater where the larger tensions and conflicts of the Middle East are played out in miniature, and in the past three years its drama has seemed particularly representative. When the Bush administration's push for democracy appeared to be gaining momentum in 2005, Lebanese responded to the assassination of their prime minister with a classic "people power" revolution, and a relatively democratic election installed a pro-Western government. When Syria and Iran launched their own offensive in 2006, Lebanon became both a staging point and a strategic target: After starting a summer war with Israel, the Hezbollah movement tried using its own street revolt to topple the government in Beirut.

For the past year, Lebanon, like the Middle East, has endured a tense and dangerous stalemate between the forces of Damascus and Tehran, spearheaded by Hezbollah, and those of the United States, Europe and Sunni-ruled Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which are backing the government of Fouad Siniora. Middle East analysts and many Lebanese tend to shruggingly conclude that nothing can be resolved until the larger regional standoff is settled -- or one side decisively gains the upper hand.

Saad Hariri, the son of the prime minister whose assassination triggered the "Cedar Revolution," is trying to defeat that conventional wisdom -- or maybe turn it inside out. The soft-spoken 37-year-old parliamentarian, now one of the leaders of the government coalition, was in Washington last week to meet with President Bush and congressional leaders. His main aim was the same one he has pursued since Feb. 14, 2005, when his father was killed by a massive car bomb in the center of Beirut: to focus enough international pressure on Damascus that it will be forced to stop its incessant, brutal interventions in Lebanon.

The latest of those came less than three weeks ago, when a pro-government legislator named Antoine Ghanem was killed by another car bomb -- the sixth such assassination in the past 2 1/2 years and the second since June. Like most Lebanese, Hariri has no doubt that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad is responsible. This is not mere terrorism -- by picking off pro-government members of parliament one by one, Syria is bloodily eroding the government's small parliamentary majority.

Assad is also sending a message to Hariri and opposition Shiite leader Nabih Berri, who have been trying to negotiate a way out of the Lebanese stalemate. Their talks have been inspired by the need for parliament to elect a new president by Nov. 24, when the term of Emile Lahoud expires. Lahoud is a Syrian puppet; while the pro-Western alliance has the votes to elect its own choice as his successor, the opposition is able to deny the necessary quorum.

The Lebanese are talking about a compromise that could allow a new president to take office while offering a concession or two to the opposition parties -- such as a delay in implementing the disarmament of Hezbollah required by two U.N. Security Council resolutions. But "Syria is determined that the presidential election will not happen," Hariri said shortly after meeting Bush. "In their eyes they are winning this conflict. They are killing people in the streets of Beirut, and nothing is happening to them."

Bush has been tougher on Syria than anyone else in the West. But his administration is under a lot of countervailing pressure -- from State Department diplomats and Democrats who insist that "dialogue" with Assad is the best approach; from Israelis and Arabs who would like Syria to join incipient Middle East peace negotiations; from Europeans who hint that a U.N.-sponsored investigation into the Hariri murder and other killings might best be put on a back burner or used as a bargaining chip. Syria has been folded into U.S.-orchestrated diplomatic meetings on Iraq and invited to the administration's Israeli-Arab summit planned for Annapolis in November.

Hariri argues implicitly for a different strategy, one that starts rather than ends in Lebanon. "It is possible to pressure Syria by threatening isolation," he says. "When Rafiq Hariri was assassinated, the whole world talked with one language -- and when the whole world said it, Syria got out of Lebanon, because they were afraid that the world would isolate Syria."

If the same coalition were to unite in demanding that Damascus stop interfering in the Lebanese presidential election, Hariri reasons, the Lebanese could strike a deal that would allow the choice of a president committed to the country's independence, to strengthening its government and its armed forces, and to creating a state that would eventually crowd out militias such as Hezbollah. "If we succeed as a moderate democracy, it will have an enormous impact on the region, and on Syria," Hariri says. "If we fail, terrorism and extremism will flourish." In other words, the Middle East can paralyze Lebanon -- or, just maybe, Lebanon can start to change the Middle East.


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