Tuesday, May 3, 2005

Although Syria’s withdrawal of its 14,000 troops from Lebanon sounds like good news, it is only one step in the right direction. The Lebanese people cannot truly be free until Syria also removes thousands of intelligence operatives it maintains in Lebanon — including those in the Bekaa Valley, a longstanding haven for terrorist training bases, and various Palestinian refugee camps throughout the country. This has not been done. In addition, Iran, which has up to 100 of its Revolutionary Guards in the country for terrorism-training purposes, needs to remove them. And Hezbollah — the country’s only indigenous militia, needs to be disarmed.

With parliamentary elections scheduled to take place on May 29, United States and France are continuing to press demand that Syrian ruler Bashar Assad remove all vestiges of Syrian control from Lebanon. On Monday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier issued a joint statement demanding an end to any “residual” Syrian presence on Lebanese soil. Washington and Paris issued the statement after Lebanese Prime Minister Nagib Miqati told the French newspaper Le Monde that Syrian Army troops remained “within Lebanese territory” in the eastern Bekaa Valley.

Even if the Syrian Army and intelligence services were to completely vacate Lebanon, the country cannot genuinely be considered free so long as Hezbollah — which is in reality the cat’s paw of the mullahs in Tehran — retains its armed force. It is five years since Israel ended its occupation of southern Lebanon, the purported reason why Hezbollah needed to be armed to the teeth. The terrorist organization maintains 13,000 rockets it can target northern Israel with, along with unmanned aerial vehicles that have conducted apparent reconnaissance operations in Israeli airspace in recent months. This is particularly troubling in view of Israeli charges that most of the terrorist activities in the Palestinian territories are being directed by Hezbollah operatives based in Beirut. With the money it receives from Iran ($100-200 million a year) and logistical support from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards based in Lebanon, Hezbollah would more than hold its own in a military confrontation with the Lebanese Army. This situation is intolerable. Elections run the real risk of becoming empty exercises if a sovereign nation’s army is forced to stand down should Hezbollah not accept the results.

Fortunately, President Bush has made it clear that forcing Hezbollah to disarm is an essential component of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559, the measure pushed by Washington and Paris and passed in September, calling for the departure of foreign forces from Lebanon and the disarming of armed groups. Ultimately, the Lebanese people “are going to decide the fate of the country,” Mr. Bush told the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation in an interview last month. Referring to Hezbollah, the president added: “And you can’t have a free country if a group of people are like an armed militia. In other words, there needs to be a police organized by the state, a military organized by the state. But citizens groups that are armed, trying to impose their will on a free society is just not the definition of a free society.”

In the interview, the president also appeared to raise the possibility of providing some sort of international assistance to enable Lebanon to reconstitute its security services and police. And Congress and the administration should seriously consider the possibility of providing technical assistance and training of a new Lebanese army — one capable of protecting the people from all of the terrorist groups and militias that have brought so much death and destruction to the country. In the meantime, Washington and the international community must remain vigilant about purging all vestiges of malevolent Syrian Ba’athism from positions of authority in Lebanon.

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