- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Lebanon’s beautiful Bekaa Valley is a hotbed of evil. The primary connecting link between Syria and Lebanon, the ruggedly lush area is an important center for much of what troubles and terrifies the world: drugs, terrorists and, reportedly, weapons of mass destruction.

The narrow 75-mile-long corridor has in fact become one of the most dangerous places on Earth, not just for chance passersby, but also for the world at large. It is long past time for the Bekaa Valley to be returned to its peaceful past.

For 20 years, the Bekaa has become one of the world’s most important transit points as well as refining points for opium and its derivatives. In the 1960s, families would drive out from Beirut to picnic there.

No more. Syrian troops are bivouacked in the valley and people driving out from Damascus are likely to be Hezbollah terrorists. Founded and financed by Iran, and coddled by Syria, Hezbollah is dedicated to the destruction of Israel. Their fighters linger for training in the Bekaa, before heading south to the Israeli border to cause as much mischief as possible.

As peace unfolded in 1967 and during the rest of the decade, a flood of Palestinians surged north from the territory newly occupied by Israel. Intercommunal hostilities between Lebanese Christians and Muslims took a massive toll. Beirut was reduced to rubble. Israel invaded Lebanon from the south, and Syria from the east.

In October 1983, the U.S. Marines’ peacekeeping encampment near the Beirut airport was truck-bombed, killing 241 troops. When the remaining Marines decamped having scarcely retaliated, Arabs throughout the region decided America had no stomach for confronting the simmering discontent emanating from the tortured Palestinian-Israeli confrontation.

With Syria effectively in control of Lebanon and already involved in the drug trade, it was a small step to utilize the Bekaa Valley as a transit base, and another small step to set up heroin-processing facilities. Indeed, units of the Syrian military have long provided the Bekaa’s dirty denizens “protection” services… to protect their monetary interests in the various businesses.

The formerly relaxed valley had become a safe haven for the manufacture of illicit drugs and a training ground for fanatical terrorists. What could have been a more natural place for Saddam Hussein, under threat of invasion and destruction, to warehouse his weapons of mass destruction?

Following the end of major Operation Iraqi Freedom hostilities, Israeli intelligence began last June to investigate the possibility, and within weeks became convinced substantial quantities of Iraqi WMDs had transited Syria and were now stashed less than 15 miles from Israeli territory. So convinced were they that plans were made for offensive strikes aimed at the Bekaa and at Damascus. And then, silence.

As the Israelis were rattling their sabers, Syrian President Bashar Assad assured Secretary of State Colin Powell his government was at last moving against terrorist organizations in Damascus, and they did so, for as long as it took Mr. Powell to return to Washington. Then Syrian officials said there had been some misunderstanding, rescinding the concessions the U.S. secretary of state a few days earlier had announced. It seemed clear Mr. Powell had been hoodwinked into convincing the Israelis to stand down from their offensive posture.

The Bekaa Valley is a fetid swamp of subversion, and it is time to drain it, whether or not WMD are found there. As was the case in Iraq, there are multiple reasons to relieve Lebanon, the region and the world of the Bekaa’s multiple dangers. What a victory it would be, were the heroin factories and the Hezbollah fighters removed from their cushy existence, forcefully if necessary.

Moreover, it is time to tell Bashar Assad to come clean on a host of unsavory subjects, including :

• Revealing Iraqi WMD locations in Syria and cooperating in their disposal.

• Handing over Iraqi funds held in Damascus banks.

• Capturing ex-officials of Saddam’s regime hiding around the country.

• Closing down Syria’s own WMD programs.

• Withdrawing Syrian troops and ending the occupation of Lebanon.

Just as the mood in the United States has altered radically since September 11, 2001, so has the Middle East’s image of America since the end of major hostilities in Iraq. Once again, there is respect for the United States — not affection, but respect. That respect has resulted in numerous national changes of direction towards more open societies:

(1) Iraq: promulgation of an interim constitution as a first step to open election of representatives and writing of a permanent constitution.

(2) Libya: Discontinuance of all WMD programs and renunciation of the presidential aspirations of Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s son Seif, groomed for 12 years to succeed his father.

(3) Egypt: Declaration by President Hosni Mubarak that a special commission will create a democratic succession plan and simultaneous denial that his son Gamal, groomed for 10 years to take over, was ever a candidate to succeed the man who has headed Egypt for 22 years.

(4) Saudi Arabia: Decisions to hold the first democratic elections in the country’s history, to fill half the seats on municipal councils, as well as to broaden women’s rights.

(5) Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar: Announcement of plans for faster-paced democratization and more liberal women’s rights.

The foregoing represent significant advances in the Middle East’s glacial political climate. In less than a year, seven Arab regimes have taken important steps to loosen their autocratic grips on their populations.

If it can happen in these countries, progress can surely occur in Lebanon and Syria. For the sake of peace, in the region and worldwide, it is essential the Bekaa Valley be returned to a nonthreatening condition.

John R. Thomson has lived and worked in the Middle East for three decades as businessman, diplomat and journalist. Starting before 1967’s Six-Day War, he has reported extensively on the region’s wars and geopolitics from bases in Beirut, Cairo and Riyadh.

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