The Magazine

The Road from Damascus

From the March 14, 2005 issue: Will the Cedar Revolution spill over into Syria?

Mar 14, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 24 • By MARC GINSBERG
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"WE ASK ALMIGHTY GOD to divide Syria into hundreds of pieces so that the world at large may rest in peace." So prayed a Lebanese military officer quoted in the Voice of Hope, the mouthpiece of the pro-Israeli Southern Lebanese Army, on July 30, 1980.

Twenty-five years later, Syria is still around, but looking more and more as though its president, the Levant's callow mischief-maker-in-chief, Bashar al-Assad, has stumbled into a fatal diplomatic vortex--one that could lead to the implosion of the last Baathist regime and the demise of a 24/7 state sponsor of terror. Here are some straws in the wind:

* France (the former colonial power in Lebanon) and the United States are stepping up a diplomatic drive to force Syria's 12,000-man occupation force and Gestapo-like secret intelligence service out of Lebanon, which Syria has occupied since 1976.

* Although proof remains lacking, there is widespread belief (shared by many in Washington) that Syria was behind the February 14 assassination of popular former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, along with 16 others--the outrage that has left Lebanon's normally disparate ethnic groups united against Syria.

* The Syrian-installed puppet government headed by Omar Karami submitted its resignation on February 28, as the popular Cedar Revolution in the streets of Beirut daily picked up steam.

* Israel and the United States have irrefutable proof that the Damascus-based Palestine Islamic Jihad was responsible for the suicide bomb detonated at the Stage Nightclub on Tel Aviv's fashionable waterfront two weeks ago.

* General John Abizaid bluntly stated last week before a congressional panel that Syria remains "unhelpful" to Iraq in its efforts to prevent cross-border support for insurgents.

In a desperate bid to staunch the bleeding and salvage his ruling House of Assad, the Syrian president hightailed it last week to Saudi Arabia to shore up fraternal Arab support. But the effort failed, and only fellow terror-sponsor Iran has rallied to Assad's side with a pledge of allegiance.

No one knows whether Assad can jettison enough ballast to survive. The air is pregnant with change, but the House of Assad has proven its ruthless resilience before. How Assad manages the fallout from the Cedar Revolution could determine whether the minority Alawites in Damascus survive a crisis of Syria's own making.

Alibis and motives abound. But the ten-foot-deep crater at the site where Rafik Hariri's motorcade was ambushed has all the hallmarks of a plot hatched by Syria's intelligence operatives--possibly without the knowledge of Assad himself.

Hariri had earned the standing of a revered Lebanese patriot. It was he who, after a decades-long civil war, cajoled his countrymen into putting aside their differences and rebuilding their shattered nation. He persuaded them that Lebanon could become again a shining jewel in an otherwise turbulent Middle East.

Last year, Hariri resigned as prime minister to protest the reappointment of Syrian-puppet president Emile Lahoud. But Hariri was plotting a comeback. He and Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt and other anti-Syrian political leaders were planning to form a new, more potent parliamentary opposition to the Syrian-backed government.

Meeting at Beirut's fashionable Bristol Hotel in October 2004, Christian allies of Hariri and Jumblatt began preparing a manifesto of sorts that would compel reforms and force Syria out of Lebanon once and for all by overturning all laws and treaties legitimating Syria's presence. Damascus understood only too well the implications of these gatherings and of the unprecedented anti-Syrian Sunni-Christian-Druze alliance that was emerging.

Long chafing under the illegal Syrian occupation, Lebanese civil society has been energized by Hariri's assassination as by no other event. Hundreds of thousands of flag-waving protesters have encamped in Martyrs' Square astride the site where the motorcade was attacked. Day and night their numbers have grown. They are emboldened by the courage of their Iraqi brethren, by the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, and by the resignation of the Karami government.

What the Lebanese want is not only an end to the Syrian occupation, but a sensible electoral law, clean parliamentary elections in May, an international investigation into Hariri's murder, and a stop to Syria's meddling in their country's internal affairs. They have a steep road to climb, steeper than that of their fellow protesters in Kiev. The obstacles to a viable Lebanese democracy include a historical proclivity to place religious differences above national unity; the presence of a fifth column of Shiite political parties backed up by formidable militias (Hezbollah and Amal) which oppose a break with Syria and Iran; and Syria's historical claim to Lebanon as an integral part of a Greater Syria.