On Point: From "The Beirut Spring" to Toppling Assad

by Austin Bay
January 17, 2006

Two events sparked Lebanon's 2005 "Beirut spring," that "streetrevolution" of protests and pro-democracy demonstrations which ultimatelyforced Syria to end its two-decade-long military occupation of Lebanon.

The first revolutionary fire-starter was Iraq's historic January2005 election. The Iraqis trek to the polls, despite the threats ofterrorists, encouraging democrats throughout the Middle East, butparticularly in Lebanon.

Murder, however, provided the ultimate spur. Lebanese PrimeMinister Rafik Hariri was a Lebanese nationalist with the guts to challengeSyria's vicious and corrupt Assad regime. The Valentine's Day 2005assassination of Hariri pushed hundreds of thousands of Lebanese into thestreets.

Lebanese of all political and religious stripes suspected theorders to kill Hariri came from Syria. The assassination was clearly an actof terror designed to thwart Lebanese nationalist goals and democraticaspirations -- and continue Syrian control.

Prior to 9-11, the assassination might have achieved thosegoals. There were no other choices. New Iraq, however, has created newpolitical and democratic options.

Instead of cowing the population, the assassination energizedLebanon's opposition. Lebanese aggressiveness, backed by explicit Westernsupport, forced Syria to pull out. Media coverage of Lebanese protests putSyria under intense pressure. The American Army on Syria's border, and anIraqi government angry at Syrian support of Iraqi terrorists, certainlyencouraged Syrian caution.

In the aftermath of Syria's withdrawal, key questions regardingHariri's murder remained. The biggest ones centered on Syrian dictatorBashar Assad. Did Assad give the orders to kill Hariri?

The United Nations ordered an investigation of Hariri'sassassination. German jurist Detlev Mehlis pursued leads with a fiercenessthat surprised the Syrian government and impressed critics who thought theU.N. investigation would be a "feel good" gesture with little substance.Mehlis finessed Syrian attempts to obstruct his investigation and ultimatelyproduced evidence of Syrian involvement in the crime.

The legal pursuit of Assad continues. Last week, Serge Brammertzof Belgium officially replaced Mehlis. Brammertz has served as a prosecutorfor the International Criminal Court. He is tasked with continuing theHariri probe and investigating terrorist bombings in Lebanon since October2004. Brammertz also has spine -- he has summoned Bashar Assad as a witness.

Assad can ignore Brammertz -- the prosecutor has no means ofenforcement other than political pressure. Political pressure, however, isbuilding. Former Syrian Vice President Abdel-Halim Khaddam is talking.Khaddam -- a 74 year-old politician who once worked for Bashar Assad'sfather, Hafez al-Assad -- resigned as vice president in June 2005 and wentinto exile. (Hafez al-Assad died in 2000.)

Khaddam recently told the German magazine Der Speigel that "theattack on Hariri was ... one that could only have been set into motion bythe highest-ranking members of the power structure in Lebanon and Syria."

"I am convinced," Khaddam added, "that the order (to killHariri) came from Assad."

Khaddam is no democratic dream. He's a Syrian Baathist and aHafez al-Assad "Old Guard" loyalist. He helped orchestrate Syria'soccupation of Lebanon. He understands the world has changed, however, andhas begun organizing a government in exile. He claims he supports politicaland economic liberalization. He told an Arab interviewer that Syria must"change from within. ... If the main vector for change is external, then theinterests of the country are harmed." However, Khaddam knows internationalpolitical support for regime change is essential.

Khaddam isn't clean, he's a conniver -- but he may be atransitional leader acceptable to Syria's security services, and onecertainly preferable to the chaos of a civil war.

Unlike rogue Iran, Syria lacks oil cash. It's an economic basketcase and vulnerable to economic pressure. Unlike North Korea, it cannot sealitself in a Stalinist shell. TV satellite dishes dot too many Syrian roofs.Assad can kick journalists out of Damascus, but Syria's borders arepermeable.

On its own, an international judicial inquiry won't toppleAssad. However, the Syrian military, pressured by U.N. investigators,squeezed by economic sanctions and goaded by a government in exile, justmight.

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To find out more about Austin Bay and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.


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