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A Blast Heard Round the World?

By Michael Freund
2/15/2005, 12:00 AM

The car bomb that tore through downtown Beirut’s beachfront area yesterday, killing former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, did far more than just rock the Lebanese capital. In the days ahead, the shock waves emanating from the explosion will likely ricochet across the entire Middle East - and far beyond.

Hariri There seems little doubt that the thuggish regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad was behind Hariri’s untimely demise. The former Lebanese premier had recently become one of the most vocal critics of Syria’s ongoing occupation of Lebanon, and he is said to have committed a great deal of his time, energy and vast fortune to pressing for the removal of Syrian troops from the country.

With the Lebanese opposition growing increasingly vocal (and brave) in calling for an end to Syrian domination, and with Lebanon due to hold a round of elections in a few months’ time, the message behind Hariri’s assassination is unequivocal: Syria has no intention of removing its stranglehold from its tiny and rather helpless neighbor.

Why should anyone outside the region care about any of this? The answer is really quite simple: Syria is rapidly becoming one of the greatest threats to Middle East stability alongside Iran.

The same Syrian regime that is aiding the insurgency in Iraq against US soldiers is also seeking to ensure continued volatility in Lebanon, Israel and elsewhere. Damascus hosts various Palestinian terror organizations, serves as one of the chief backers of Hizbullah, and does not shy away from thumbing its nose at the US and its interests. In other words, Syria is out to disrupt US President George W. Bush’s vision of a more democratic Middle East, and they don’t seem too concerned about the consequences.

It is time for that to change, and rapidly. Enough is enough – how much longer does Washington plan to sit on the sidelines and allow Assad to bleed US troops in Baghdad while simultaneously holding Beirut in a chokehold?

If the US is serious about bringing some more tranquility to the region, then it is time to turn up the heat on Assad and put him on notice that he will pay a heavy price for his actions.

The Bush Administration has tried diplomacy, and even imposed some economic sanctions on Syria early last year. But as Hariri’s killing yesterday clearly demonstrated, that doesn’t seem to have impressed Assad very much.

A couple of US Marine divisions knocking at his palace door, however, now that may just do the trick...