The Magazine

End the Occupation . . .

Of Lebanon.

Apr 28, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 32 • By CLAUDIA ROSETT
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WITH SADDAM HUSSEIN kaput, it's time to address another mess in the Middle East, time for the United States to champion the trampled rights of an oppressed people, time to end the occupation. It's time, in sum, for Syria to get out of Lebanon.

Syria's purloining of an entire neighboring country has helped shore up the Baathist Assad dynasty in Damascus, while serving as a source of violent instability in the region. By almost every measure--totalitarian rule, terrorist sponsorship, double-dealing bad faith--Syria's regime ranks among the chart-toppers worldwide. But ever since Syrian troops rolled into Lebanon as "peacekeepers" in 1976, and Damascus consolidated its domination via the ill-conceived 1989 Taif Agreement, the bizarre operating assumption, even in the democratic West, has been that occupation by Syria is somehow a formula for Lebanese "stability."

Hardly. Two great evils have come of it so far. The first is Syria's subletting of Lebanon to terrorist groups--most notoriously Hezbollah, which ranks number one among terrorist killers of Americans abroad, sends murderers into Israel, and has taken to threatening the United States directly. Hezbollah gets support and arms from Iran and Syria. What its thugs provide Damascus, in return, is the ability to threaten and attack Israel from bases just outside Syria's borders, deflecting blame from Damascus and making chronic trouble between Lebanon and Israel. That, in turn, plays as the chief pretext for Syria to stay in Lebanon, to promote yet more "peace" and "stability."

In truth, Lebanon, along with being a handy financial hub and luscious slice of seaside real estate, is also one of the prime factors that makes impoverished, wretched Syria a player of heft in the region, a colonial power cultivating trouble. If the United States really aims to produce peace in this part of the Middle East, the first road map to unfold would be the one showing the roads that could take Syria's occupation force of soldiers, secret police, and pet terrorists back to Damascus. How Bashar Assad's regime would survive that humiliation, with its accompanying loss of Lebanese tribute, is an interesting question. Maybe it wouldn't, and that, too, would be a step forward for the region.

The second evil of Syria's colonial venture is the internal corrosion of Lebanon, otherwise the most promising candidate in the region for Arab democracy. If you reach back to the days before Yasser Arafat arrived with his wrecking crew in the 1970s and the country descended into civil war, Lebanon held pride of place as the only Arab nation with democratic institutions. It was the Paris--or perhaps we might better say, the London--of the Middle East. That's what allowed a mix of Muslims, Christians, and related sects to work out their differences without killing each other and threatening their neighbors. This is a valuable legacy, deserving of protection it has not received. Lebanon's civil war ended in 1990, but Syria stayed on. The Israelis, who came in to shut down Arafat in 1982, withdrew their last troops in 2000, but Syria is still there--inviting fights over the disputed scrap of land called Shabaa Farms. And the squandering of Lebanon's true assets proceeds apace.

What are those assets? Unlike such carefully guarded gas stations as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, Lebanon is famous for its cosmopolitan culture, liberal heritage, and the enterprise and skills of its people. In recent decades that has counted for little in the backroom barter and Nobel Peace-prize contests of Middle East politics. But one of the great insights of the Bush post-September 11 foreign policy is that stability and peace are built not on oil, but on free societies. By these lights, Lebanon contains treasure in greater abundance than anyplace else in the Middle East; something that for purposes of real progress is more valuable than oil. It's called human capital.

Last December, I visited Beirut, curious to see what kind of democratic opposition could be found. There are many such people--most of them Christian, but not all. Given Syria's ability to meddle in their lives, they were surprisingly outspoken, quite clear about the need for democratic self-rule, and they all warned that it was unwise for Washington to keep tolerating Syria's Baathist infestation of Lebanon. "What is taking place here is the advent of a police state," one lawyer told me. "We don't understand why the U.S. is accepting that Lebanon would vanish as an example of pluralism." They warned that all the trends were in the wrong direction. "You allow Syria to dominate the country in such a way as to create, later, monsters," a scholar told me.