- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 8, 2005

President Bush yesterday stepped up the pressure against Syria to end its occupation of Lebanon, demanding that President Bashar Assad end Syria’s presence in the next few months or become “even more isolated from the world.” Mr. Bush rightly dismissed the Syrian strongman’s announcement on Saturday of a pullback by March and a pullout by May, calling the proposals “delaying tactics and half measures.” The president also demanded that Syria implement U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, which calls for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Lebanon.

The Lebanese people should have the right to choose their own parliament this spring, and, as Mr. Bush pointed out yesterday, in order to ensure that the voting can occur without intimidation, “all Syrian military forces and intelligence personnel must withdraw before the Lebanese elections.” Speaking directly to the people of Lebanon, Mr. Bush said: “The American people are on your side. Millions across the earth are on your side. The momentum from freedom is on your side, and freedom will prevail in Lebanon.”

In some ways, Mr. Bush’s toughened language about Lebanon is somewhat reminiscent of what he said about Iraq during 2002 and 2003, when he demanded that Saddam Hussein disarm or face serious consequences. Speaking at the National Defense University in Southwest Washington, Mr. Bush delivered a stern warning to Syria and its close ally, Iran, about the consequences of continuing to support terror. Noting that Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which is headquartered in Damascus, has claimed responsibility for the Feb. 25 suicide bombing in Tel Aviv that killed five Israelis, Mr. Bush stated: “Syria, as well as Iran, has a long history of supporting terrorist groups determined to sow division and chaos in the Middle East, and there is every possibility they will try this strategy again. The time has come for Syria and Iran to stop using murder as a tool of policy, and to end all support of terrorism.”

The Lebanese Shi’ite organization Hezbollah delivered its response. Having sent out a call Saturday for a mass protest in support of the Assad regime, hundreds of thousands of people rallied in Beirut to praise Syria, accuse the United States of interfering in Lebanon and denounce Resolution 1559. Hezbollah boss Hassan Nasrallah, who addressed the crowds, called on French President Jacques Chirac to withdraw his support for the resolution.

Hezbollah, which receives extensive Iranian and Syrian support for its operations against Israel, is one of the world’s most violent, dangerous terrorist organizations. But it is more than just a terrorist group; inside Lebanon, it is also a social service provider and a political party with 12 seats in a 128-member parliament.

Even if Syria is forced to leave Lebanon, Hezbollah (the only Lebanese militia permitted to have arms since the Lebanese civil war ended approximately 15 years ago) would remain at a minimum a domestic political force to be reckoned with. Still, as yesterday’s demonstration in Beirut illustrated, those who benefit from Syria’s brutal occupation of Lebanon are not prepared to go down without a fight.

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