- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 20, 2005

Talk of a democratic surge sweeping the Middle East is yet another case of mistaking wishes for reality. It bears an uncanny resemblance to the blind belief that tens of millions of Iraqis would greet U.S. troops the way the French greeted their American liberators in 1944.

In Lebanon, which is already being hailed as liberated from Syrian occupation, the hundreds of thousands of people demonstrating both for and against Syria in Beirut mask the deep sectarian divide that is Lebanon’s unhappy burden.

One side of the divide is Hezbollah, the “Party of God,” which the United States and Israel describe as a terrorist organization, but which commands the loyalty of the half-million people who demonstrated for Syria. The anti-Syrian factions responded with some 800,000 (out of a population of 4 million).

The anything-you-can-do-we-can-do-better demos carried the seeds of a potential revival of Lebanon’s civil war. That appalling bloodletting became a human meat grinder that killed 150,000 over 15 years, or the equivalent of 11 million Americans. But unlike most civil wars, this one ended (in 1990) with neither victor nor vanquished. Hence the potential danger.

Hezbollah remains Lebanon’s best-organized political party. Its ability to dispense social services for the less fortunate is the envy of all the other parties. Originally created and funded by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, and supplied its military needs via Syria, Hezbollah takes full credit for forcing Israel to give up its occupation of southern Lebanon.

Syria originally sent some 40,000 troops into Lebanon in 1976 at the request of its Christian minority losing ground to Islamist extremists in the opening phases of the civil war. A recent poll of 1,250 Lebanese, a cross-section of all religious groupings, showed a deep sectarian divide remains on several key issues.

The Bush administration may believe another Middle Eastern domino is falling, but as Aaron D. Miller, a long-time veteran of Middle Eastern affairs for seven different secretaries of state, put it on Fox News, “it would take an atomic crowbar to pry Lebanon loose from Syria.” Shimon Peres, Israel’s new deputy prime minister, reminded us there are an estimated 1 million Syrians working in Lebanon. About 20 percent of Syria’s gross domestic product is derived from Lebanon.

The Syrian intelligence network in Lebanon, which includes thousands of local informants, is well concealed and deeply entrenched. The buildings they are giving up in Beirut are an optical illusion. Syria never recognized Lebanon as an independent country. It never opened an embassy in Beirut because it was considered part of “Greater Syria.”

Unless handled with extreme care — and President George W. Bush’s ultimatum to get out of Lebanon “now” was more blunderbuss than stiletto — extremists on both sides of the divide could start playing with fire again. The Syrian intelligence establishment is quite capable of triggering resumed civil strife.

Syria is also vulnerable — and not necessarily to the march of democracy. The country experienced 21 coups between the end of the French mandate in 1945 and 1970 when Gen. Hafez Assad, head of the Air Force, seized power and clung to it with a draconian dictatorship for 30 years.

Upon his death, his son Bashar, a meek ophthalmologist, was recalled from his London base to succeed his father.

It soon became apparent to his Arab opposite numbers that Bashar Assad was frequently kept in the dark about what Syria’s 14 different — and often competing — intelligence services were up to. Heavily armed Palestinian terrorists were caught in northern Jordan and confessed to being trained in Syria. Bashar was incredulous when told about it by his new friend, Jordan’s King Abdullah.

One can also safely bet none of the 14 ‘fessed up to any part in the assassination of Lebanon’s popular former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. It may also have been a rogue intelligence operation that miscalculated its boomerang impact on Syria. Perhaps this was why Mr. Assad decided to retire his military intelligence chief, the redoubtable Gen. Hassan Khalil, whose remit covered Lebanon, and replace him with a junior Brig. Gen. Asef Shawkat, the president’s brother-in-law and former deputy chief of military intelligence.

Bashar is reform-minded, according to King Abdullah, who has spent several hours driving around the Syrian countryside with him. But the hard-liners in the military and Ba’ath Party as well as the all-pervasive security apparatus know reform could be their undoing. They see Bashar’s kowtowing to Syria’s enemies as a sign of weakness.

Bashar most probably ordered the end of all aid to would-be jihadists transiting through Syria on their way to Iraq. It is equally plausible one of the intelligence services decided to ignore him. Bashar’s decision to heed the call of all his Arab neighbors, Russia, the United States, the European Union (including close friend France), has undoubtedly weakened his hold on the presidency. Another coup cannot be discounted.

Bashar Assad is now committed to pulling out Syria’s remaining 14,000 troops over the next two months, as the U.N. Security Council had demanded (Resolution 1559) last September. Israel, the Syrians are already reminding the region, has yet to carry out almost 40-year-old U.N. resolutions that require the return of occupied Palestinian territories.

It is tempting to connect the dots between the Iraqi elections, Palestinian elections and Lebanon and describe the overall picture as the inexorable march to democracy. But the strengthening of Hamas, another terrorist organization, in the Palestinian municipal elections, a harbinger of how it will do in next July’s legislative elections, and Hezbollah’s unchallenged position in Lebanon, should remind the White House these two organizations, along with Islamic Jihad, are now part of al Qaeda’s support group.

Islamists, Arab nationalists, anti-U.S. majorities in almost all Arab and Muslim countries, and anti-globalists, together are also a force multiplier for Osama bin Laden’s global movement. Two years ago, in Morocco and Jordan, two pro-Western countries at least at the government level, in overwhelming majorities told Pew Foundation surveyors they trusted bin Laden more than George W. Bush.

Even in Iraq, the elections have produced a less secular country now more influenced by Iran than the United States. In Egypt, the winner of a truly democratic election could easily be the Muslim Brotherhood, the founder of all modern-day Islamist extremist organizations. More people hate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak for his close alliance with the United States than blame him for lack of political freedom.

Turkey elected a democratic government democratically — and an Islamist party won and now governs. Its first important act was to deny transit rights across Turkey for the U.S. 4th Infantry Division in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.

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