- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 6, 2005

Syrian boss Bashar Assad’s announcement of a two-stage pullback of his forces in Lebanon is little more than a transparent attempt to stall for time and divert attention from Syria’s brutal occupation of its western neighbor.

Pressure for a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon has mounted since the Feb. 14 car-bomb attack that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 15 other people, as Lebanese Sunni Moslems, Maronite Christians and Druze have taken to the streets to demand that Syria leave. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, France and Russia have joined Washington in calling on Mr. Assad to get out. On Friday, President Bush demanded that Syria withdraw all of its troops and intelligence agents from Lebanon (which it has formally occupied since 1976) before the country holds parliamentary elections in May. Mr. Assad responded by announcing a vague plan to withdraw his 14,000 occupation troops to the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon (the location of training facilities for Hezbollah and myriad other terrorist organizations long supported by Syria) and to later move the troops to the Lebanon-Syria border.

On Saturday, Washington firmly — and correctly — made clear its dissatisfaction with Mr. Assad’s announcement: “As President Bush said Friday, when the United States and France say ‘withdraw,’ we mean complete withdrawal — no half-hearted measures.” But if Mr. Bush is ultimately successful in actually forcing Syria out of Lebanon, the consequences could be dire for Mr. Assad and his allies in the Iran-Hezbollah axis. The dictator may not survive the humiliation of surrenduring Lebanon, which Damascus has long regarded as a Syrian province. And without Syria’s support and protection, it may become very difficult for Hezbollah to credibly threaten to open up a northern front against Israel. That may be why yesterday Hezbollah called for a mass rally in Beirut to support the continued Syrian occupation of Lebanon.

But Lebanese who want to be rid of the Syrian occupation have unsheathed a new political weapon of their own: At the Web site www.free-lebanon.com, they have started a petition drive to bring war-crimes charges against Syrian officials for atrocities committed in Lebanon over the past 29 years. In short, things are becoming extremely uncomfortable for the Assad regime and its Lebanese terrorist allies. As Lebanese — no longer cowed by the Syrian Army and secret police — demonstrate on a daily basis against Ba’athist tyranny, the day is approaching when Mr. Assad may be faced with a choice between: 1) employing mass murder against his fellow Arabs in a desperate bid to maintain his grip on Lebanon; and 2) forcing the Syrian Army and secret police to stand down as the Lebanese people take their country back.

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