- The Washington Times - Monday, February 21, 2005

During an interview with Rafik Hariri a few years ago when he was still prime minister, the topic of security in the Middle East arose. The 20 minutes Hariri originally allocated stretched into more than 11/2 hours and still the prime minister gave no indication he wanted to end the discussion.

An aide periodically reminded the prime minister that three of his ministers were waiting and he was running late for a dinner appointment. Hariri was talking economics, his favorite subject, and wanted to continue. Eventually he ended the interview, saying: “This country is the least risky country among all the countries in the Middle East. With no exception.”

Following his assassination and the mounting tension over renewed calls for the withdrawal of Syrian troops, Lebanon, has gone from being “the least risky country” to the riskiest.

Pressure mounts from the United States, France and a growing segment of the Lebanese people mounts for Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon. The stakes were raised even higher when Tehran announced two days after Hariri’s killing that Syria and Iran were forming a front to counter U.S. pressures.

Those who ordered Hariri’s killing had obviously not counted on the reaction to the former prime minister’s death ” both in Lebanon and around the world. Washington and Paris were quick to decry the killing, demanding an international investigation and reiterating their desire to see Syrian forces removed from Lebanon.

While the Bush administration was careful not to point accusing fingers at Damascus, Washington did recall its ambassador “for consultations.” It was a thinly veiled accusation and Washington’s way of showing its strong displeasure with Bashar Assad’s regime, which it continues to accuse of supporting terrorism. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described Syrian-American relations as “worsening.”

The way things are going, chances are relations between Washington and Damascus will continue deteriorating unless drastic steps are taken to avoid escalation. Washington and Paris are pushing for implementation of United Nations Resolution 1559, calling for the withdrawal of foreign forces form Lebanon. France’s ambassador to the U.N., Jean-Marc de la Sabliere, said: “Resolution 1559 is a very important resolution, and it is important that this resolution is implemented.”

Washington will most likely increase pressure on Syria through the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003 and by tightening economic sanctions on Damascus. This will worsen U.S.-Syrian relations and push Syria into a corner. Pressure on Syria will continue mounting from France and the U.S. and the growing Lebanese opposition.

Since Hariri’s death, a grass-roots movement has been taking shape in Lebanon, calling for the departure of Syrians troops there since 1975. It would not take much to turn today’s peaceful opposition in Beirut into another protracted civil war.

Syria now finds itself in a delicate situation. If Syria folds under U.S. pressure and that of the Lebanese movement for removal of its 14,000 troops, Mr. Assad’s domestic opponents could see it as weakness and internal strife might result.

A respectable alternative and a face-saving solution would be for the Syrian leadership to declare its military mission in Lebanon a success and re-deploy its forces across the border. As it stands, internal security in Lebanon is already the responsibility of the Lebanese armed forces and the Lebanese Internal Security Forces.

Given that Syria remains concerned about Lebanon’s political future and stability, Damascus should announce establishment of an embassy in Beirut, something Syria has always been reluctant to do ” and appoint a prominent Syrian diplomat to represent its interests in the Lebanese capital.

Such a move would meet the requirements of U.N. Resolution 1559, granting Lebanon its territorial integrity, thus appeasing the United States and France, and avoiding escalation of tension in the area. It also would reassure the Lebanese that Syria has no territorial ambitions in Lebanon and would defuse the tension developed in Lebanon after Hariri’s killing.

This would give Syria a face-saving exit strategy from Lebanon and avoid a confrontation with the United States. It would change the nature of the crisis from an adversarial military standoff, where all sides stand to lose, and pave the way for political and diplomatic dialogue where ideas can be exchanged in the move toward peace.

Tension in the area would immediately lessen, making Lebanon once again one of the “least risky countries” in the Middle East. If that happened, Hariri’s death would have not been in vain.

Claude Salhaniis international editor for United Press International.

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