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Standing up to Syria

By Michael Freund
2/22/2005, 12:00 AM

The sight of thousands of Lebanese in Beirut bravely protesting against the Syrian occupation of their country yesterday is a compelling sign that the archaic political foundations of the Arab world are suddenly being shaken to the very core.

Lebanon_1The assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri a week ago sent shock waves across the region. The US and the UN expressed outrage, and even the Europeans are now demanding a full-scale investigation, even though it is all but clear that Syria lies behind Hariri’s murder.

But the big question in the wake of the incident was how the Lebanese would respond. Would they sit tight and bite their lip once again at this latest Syrian outrage, or would they muster up the courage to defy their Damascene overlords once and for all?

It is still too early to tell, but the rally yesterday was an encouraging sign. After all, the Syrians are known to play hardball, and their willingness to take out someone of Hariri’s prominence was either a sign of utmost confidence or downright stupidity on their part.

Say what you will about US President George W. Bush’s goal of democratic reform in the Middle East – he is clearly having a major impact on this part of the world. The sight of Iraqis and Afghans voting at the polls in recent months surely left its mark on the Lebanese, who have been chafing under Syrian domination for decades.

A freer Lebanon would clearly be in Israel and America’s interests. It would reduce Syrian influence in the area, and might lead to the establishment of a more responsible government along Israel’s northern border, one that would be less likely to tolerate the presence of Hizbullah terrorists provoking cross-border trouble.

So while we might disagree with President Bush when it comes to his views on the establishment of a Palestinian state, his goal of reshaping the region in a more democratic fashion is one we can, and should, embrace.