“Is Assad’s regime long for this world?” It is a sign of how weakened Syrian dictator Bashar Assad has become since the Feb. 14 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri that the Lebanese (in this example, Michael Young, opinion editor of the Beirut Daily Star) are not only willing to speak openly about ending Syria’s occupation of Lebanon, but to take a step further by talking about the prospective demise of the Assad regime.
The Hariri murder is widely believed to have been carried out at Mr. Assad’s behest to intimidate Lebanese critics of Syria’s 29-year-old occupation of their country. But it is now having the opposite effect, as Syria has come under mounting international pressure to leave Lebanon.
The United States and the European Union this week repeated their demand that an interim Lebanese government be formed quickly, so that elections can take place next month as scheduled. On Monday, President Bush stepped up the pressure on Syria. He demanded that Syria “not only get out with your military forces, but get out with your intelligence services, too; get completely out of Lebanon, so Lebanon can be free and the people can be free.”
A full withdrawal from Lebanon under international pressure could be very damaging to Mr. Assad and threaten the stability of his regime. By conservative estimates, senior Syrian government and military officials have collected hundreds of millions of dollars from Lebanon’s drug trade and other crimes, and would react angrily to losing these sources of swag. A Syrian withdrawal represents weakness — something that could have catastrophic consequences for a dictator whose family has ruled Syria by brute force for 35 years.
The most positive development since Mr. Hariri’s assassination has been the willingness of Europe — and France in particular — to support a relatively tough stance toward Syria. The EU has delayed going forward with an economic cooperation agreement with Damascus, and EU officials now speak of conditioning such a deal on Syria’s willingness to fully withdraw from Lebanon. (Its troops are supposed to leave by the end of the month.) One of the toughest critics of the Syrian occupation right now is French President Jacques Chirac.
No less important is the future role of Hezbollah, the only private Lebanese organization permitted to retain its weaponry, including Katyushas and longer-range rockets, along with pilotless drones it uses to conduct surveillance of Israel. Mr. Bush on Monday denounced Hezbollah’s efforts to sabotage the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and demanded that Syria end its support for Hezbollah. Unfortunately, France and the EU still refuse to list Hezbollah — the No. 1 indigenous threat to Lebanon’s stability — as a terrorist organization. If the Europeans are serious about bringing real, enduring reform to Lebanon, it’s not enough to chase Syria out. They must take a more soberminded approach to the danger posed by Hezbollah.