Friday, March 11, 2005

Defending the Cedar Revolution

The developments of the last week have made it clear that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has no intention of letting go of his stranglehold on Lebanon. Last Saturday, Assad made an ambiguous commitment to withdraw Syria's 14,000 troops from Lebanon, on an indeterminate timetable, in a speech that Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy has described as "leavened with inconsistency and paranoia". On Tuesday, the pro-Syrian Shia terrorist group Hezbollah mobilized its followers for a mass demonstration in Beirut. Bolstered by this event, Lebanon's Syrian dominated parliament then spat in the face of the democratic opposition by reappointing the same prime minister who had been forced to step down a week and a half ago after a wave of popular pro-independence protests. As these events show, Assad is pursuing a strategy of going through the motions of a withdrawal, hoping to do just enough to appease the international community, while still retaining his regime's control over Lebanon. Judging by the past few days, it could be argued that this strategy is indeed working. Has the momentum in Lebanon shifted away from democracy in favor of Syria's dictatorship and its terrorist Hezbollah allies?

We should be under no illusions that democratic change in Lebanon will come quickly or easily. As Tom Friedman points out in Thursday's New York Times, the forces of dictatorship and fanaticism are far from finished:

The massive pro-Syrian demonstration that the Hezbollah militia mounted on the streets of Beirut on Tuesday underscored just how much all the old slogans and sentiments - anti-Israeli, anti-American, pro-Islamist, sectarian - can be exploited by Syria, Iran and their local proxies to still mobilize popular forces against change. It is also another reminder that the Berlin Wall is falling in the Arab world, but Vaclav Havel, Lech Walesa and the Solidarity trade movement are not on the other side, just waiting to jump into the arms of the West. It is a much more divided, complex, confused and, at times, angry group.

Consider the message that the leaders of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah were sending to President Bush through their mass rally in Beirut: "Hey, Bush, you want a piece of us? Well, come and get it. Remember what Stalin said about the pope: how many divisions does he have? When it comes to divisions on the ground, pal, we've got 'em. You don't. So nobody is going to remake Lebanon without our permission and without our interests being taken into account."

Writing on the same day in the Washington Post, Jim Hoagland also notes that the success of Lebanon's Cedar Revolution is far from guaranteed:

But the country's deep social chasms make Lebanon a weak reed for the Bush administration to lean on in pursuing its Greater Middle East ambitions. Those in search of historical analogies may eventually have to consider Europe's promising but stillborn revolutions of 1848 instead of the collapse of the Soviet empire and the Berlin Wall in 1989 as the model.

Yet despite these clear and justifiable concerns, both men remain optimistic. In Friedman's view:

The spreading virus that "things can change and I can make a difference" is the most important thing happening in the Arab world today. It is symbolized by the Egyptian opposition's motto: "Enough." And everyone is watching everyone else now - and comparing. An Egyptian businesswoman remarked to me, with a real sense of envy, how free and alive and energetic the Lebanese opposition protesters seemed, compared with those in Egypt.

The fact that Hezbollah had to resort to a mass rally, just like the Lebanese democracy movement's, is itself a victory for the democrats. Hezbollah clearly felt that it must prove it is as popular a force as the democratic opposition. But something tells me that those Hezbollah demonstrators who were waving the picture of Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, were uncomfortable. And this is Hezbollah's weak spot: deep down, it and its supporters know that when they raise the pictures of Syria's president, they are raising the question of whose interests they have at heart.

Hoagland also believes that the democratic opposition can succeed in Lebanon, if the Syrian occupation can be brought to an end. Such a success would substantially reinforce the wave of change that is starting to sweep the region:

In the last century, Lebanon was an intellectual and political catalyst in the Arab world. Events have placed restoration of that role within reach -- if Syrian withdrawal and its aftermath are managed tenaciously and with vision. And that outcome would reinforce the waves of change that regime change and elections in Iraq have provoked.

In spite of recent events, there are still good reasons for believing that the Cedar Revolution can succeed. For one thing, the democratic opposition in Lebanon is a truly national movement that cuts across sectarian lines. While the two main Shia parties, Hezbollah and the smaller, more moderate Amal, are pro-Syrian, most of the major Christian, Sunni, and Druze parties have put aside their differences and are firmly in the opposition camp.

Most importantly, the opposition enjoys the strong support of the US, France the UN, and much of the international community. President Bush has made it clear that he has little tolerance for Assad's half-measures and delaying tactics, and most world leaders are in agreement. According to an article in today's Washington Post, a UN envoy will be delivering an ultimatum to the Assad regime threatening "political and economic isolation" if Syria does not quickly and completely withdraw from Lebanon.

The terms of this ultimatum are reported as follows:

First, Syria must honor the independent sovereignty of Lebanon and not undermine its spring elections for a new parliament. Roed-Larsen "will imprint on everybody that there is a united demand from the international community for free and fair elections" that will include international observers, the U.N. source said.

Second, Assad must provide a complete timeline for a full pullout of troops. The international community will accept "sequencing," or a phased withdrawal, but it must be expeditious, the source said.

Third, Damascus must provide a timeline for the pullout of 5,000 intelligence agents in Lebanon.

Finally, Roed-Larsen will discuss other requirements in Resolution 1559, including the need to disarm and dismantle foreign and domestic militias operating in Lebanon, all of which Syria supports, U.N. and U.S. officials said. But the United Nations is prepared to wait until after the election to allow a new Lebanese government to deal with the militia problem.

If the international community is willing to enforce these demands through the use of comprehensive economic sanctions, then the Assad regime has little hope of holding out. As pointed out in the Post article, Syria's weak Soviet-style economy would be devastated by a serious sanctions regimen. While it does export some oil, Assad's Syria lacks the large-scale reserves that would allow it to break down international sanctions the way Saddam Hussein did. Any kind of prolonged sanctions campaign could well lead to the fall of the Assad regime. Faced with such a prospect, the Syrian dictator will ultimately have little choice but to comply with the wishes of the world community.

Even if Syria withdraws, that still leaves the wildcard of Hezbollah. The terror group maintains a large militia, and could theoretically decide to use force against the opposition as a last-ditch measure to prevent the departure of its Syrian protectors. However, this prospect is unlikely. As Michael Young has noted, Hezbollah has only damaged its standing in Lebanon by acting as Syria's proxies. As powerful as Hezbollah is, alienating the rest of the country would be suicidal.

In spite of the past week's setbacks, the Lebanese opposition remains committed to freeing their country from Syrian domination. According to journalist Claudia Rossett, there is now graffiti in Beirut referring to the Syrian dictator as "Assaddam". Both the democratic opposition and Hezbollah are planning additional demonstrations. As one pro-opposition scholar told Rossett:

Numbers are not the issue," he said. "The issue is whether one is on the side of repression or defying repression." Hezbollah, he notes, is "armed to the teeth and supplying a repressive order." The democratic protests "are utterly spontaneous and coercion-free."

Lebanon can indeed still be truly free and democratic. As powerful as the coercive forces of Syria and Hezbollah are, they can be defeated if the international community has the will to take the necessary political and economic measures.


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