By any measure, the past 15 months have been an extraordinary time of success for the advancement of the principle that people should be free to choose their own governments. Since then, the world has witnessed popularly elected governments taking office in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Georgia, Ukraine and the Palestinian territories — events all but unimaginable just a few years ago.
Now, in the wake of the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri nine days ago, new questions are starting to be raised about the future of Syrian strongman Bashar Assad. Lebanon — where Syria has repeatedly used assassination and intimidation to maintain control and to silence political opponents —has been convulsed by eight days of demonstrations by angry Lebanese from virtually every ethnic background and religious sect demanding that Syria end its 29-year occupation. The demonstrations have been accompanied by physical attacks directed at individual Syrians and Lebanese linked to Damascus. Mr. Hariri’s murder has created new momentum in favor of a tougher policy toward Syria — not just in Washington but in Europe, where French President Jacques Chirac and other leaders may be edging toward a tougher, more realistic stance.
While President Bush is not yet calling for regime change in Damascus, he is clearly demanding a drastic change in Syria’s behavior. In particular, Mr. Bush demands that Syria: get out of Lebanon; end its support for Iraq’s terrorist insurgency; and end its support for terrorist groups.
In one sense, it is certainly understandable that Mr. Assad may not take Washington all that seriously. After all, during his father’s 29-year reign as Syrian dictator, which ended with his death in 2000, and during the ensuing five years, the United States has refused to confront Damascus.
But recent international trends have not been terribly kind to despots and autocrats like Mr. Assad. In the cases of Afghanistan and Iraq, Washington invaded and toppled the Taliban and Ba’athist regimes. In Ukraine, the administration dissuaded Russian President Vladimir Putin from interfering on behalf of Moscow’s preferred candidate, who had won an earlier vote that had been marred by irregularities. Mahmoud Abbas’ election last month as president of the Palestinian Authority would not have happened but for the campaign begun by Mr. Bush with his historic June 24, 2002, speech demanding that the Palestinians and Arab governments reform their corrupt, undemocratic political institutions. The trends have led to the greatest advance of democracy since the period immediately following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, when communist dictatorships in such nations as the Soviet Union, the Baltic States, Central Europe, East Germany, Romania, Bulgaria and Poland collapsed.
For now, the United States is not demanding a change of regime in Syria. But there are things that Washington and the European Union can do to step up the pressure. These include going after the personal assets of Mr. Assad and other senior regime leaders, which may include billions stolen as a result of corruption. It means instituting sanctions barring American mutual funds, banks or brokers against the National Bank of Syria, a government-controlled financial institution. But the Syrians will be able to effectively circumvent these sanctions if the EU votes next month to approve an association agreement for Syria — something that will encourage further European trade with Damascus and negate much of the effect of tightened U.S. sanctions.
Just three days before Mr. Hariri’s murder, the head of the EU’s foreign-aid program visited Damascus, where he called the regime “an active partner in our ring of friends.” This way of thinking needs to change. If Mr. Chirac is serious about improving relations with Washington, or is at least serious about giving substance to his call for Syria to leave Lebanon, he needs to work against an EU association agreement with Syria.