“It’s strange for me to say it, but this process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq. I was cynical about Iraq. But when I saw the Iraqi people voting three weeks ago, 8 million of them, it was the start of a new Arab world. The Syrian people, the Egyptian people, all say that something is changing. The Berlin Wall has fallen. We can see it.”
Walid Jumblatt, a Druze Muslim Leader of the Lebanese Opposition
Walid Jumblatt succinctly explains why Iraq is the political keystone, as well as the geographic keystone, to addressing the problems in the Middle East. On a smaller scale, Lebanon is the keystone to addressing problems with Syria. Syria is effectively surrounded by unfriendly nations, save Lebanon, and views Lebanon as vital to its defense. The Syrian Assads have invested much military, political and economic capital to keep Lebanon in its camp, and are on the verge of seeing their investment bottom out. The loss of Lebanon would have far reaching strategic consequences for Syria.
The Lebanese opposition to the Syrian occupation has been emboldened by recent developments in the Middle East, most notably the free elections in Iraq (see quote above), the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559, which demands the end of the occupation, and President Bush’s recent speech in Europe; “Syria must also end its occupation of Lebanon. The Lebanese people have the right to be free, and the United States and Europe share an interest in a democratic, independent Lebanon.”
The murder of former Prime Minister Harari has provided the impetus to demand the withdrawal of Syrian forces. The reaction of the Lebanese people cannot be under-estimated; they are braving a real threat of a crackdown to protest. The street signs include slogans such as “Syrial killers” and “Independence,” and the chants include those such as “The government of puppets must fall” and “Enough blood, leave us alone.” The Washington Post reports the opposition crosses the spectrum of political, religious and cultural segments of Lebanese society; “It’s the first time a whole Arab society is seeking change — Christians and Muslims, men and women, rich and poor.” This is a genuine liberation movement that Syria will have a difficult time suppressing if they attempt to do so.
Bashir Al-Assad, Syrian President and heir to the throne of his father, Hafez Al-Assad, claims he will follow the 1989 Taif Agreement and pull out of Lebanon within two years. He does this through the mouthpiece of Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa, as a personal statement by Assad would be viewed as a sign of weakness. Daniel Pipes looks at the inherent shortcomings of Bashir Al-Assad and his gross miscalculations since his assent to the Syrian throne. Each move made by Assad has greatly weakened Syria’s position on the international stage.
Unmentioned by Mr. Pipes is the effect of Assad’s miscalculations will have in the internal politics of Syria. Lebanon acts as a buffer between Syria and Israel (not counting the Golan heights) and secures the western approach. Lebanon also acts as Syria’s training ground for various Syrian and Iranian sponsored terrorist groups, including Hezbollah and Hamas. The Bekaa Valley hosts numerous global terrorist, and al Qaeda has operated from Bekaa in the past. Numerous attacks on the Israeli north are carried out by Hezbollah and various Palestinian terrorist groups via southern Lebanon. The powerbrokers in Syria, particularly the military and security services would view the loss of Lebanon as a strategic defeat, and Bashir Al-Assad would likely be held responsible for this failure.
If Assad was deposed, the questions that remain are: what would the nature of a new Syrian government?; would it see the writing on the Middle Eastern wall and push to reform and liberalize, following the examples of Afghanistan, Iraq, and (perhaps)the Palestinian Authority, or would it retreat further into a tyrannical police state?; would the new government remain friendly with Iran? Syria certainly could not be much worse than ender the existing government of Assad, particularly with it exportation of terrorism to Iraq, Israel and elsewhere and its support of Iran.
The United States and European Union should push hard to support and fund the nascent Syrian dissident groups to ensure the groundwork for a popular freedom movement is available in Syria. But even if Syria remains a classic Middle Eastern dictatorship, the loss of Lebanon would send shock waves throughout the Middle East, as another newly freed nation cannot be easily ignored. Neither could the loss of the Bekaa valley as a base of operations for Iranian Hezbollah.