March 10, 2005 | New York Sun

Showdown Shapes Up for Both Lebanon and Bush

With the reinstatement yesterday of the same pro-Syrian prime minister who resigned 11 days ago, Omar Karami, Lebanon's democratic spring is turning into a high-stakes showdown not only for the Lebanese, but for President Bush's policy of busting up the autocratic rackets of the Middle East.

Right now, the situation looks increasingly dire for this country's democratic opposition. But plenty turns on whether Mr. Bush, who has promised the democrats support in their bid to end Syrian domination, will stick to his word. Signs are that, much like Saddam Hussein, the Baathist regime of Syrian leader Bashar Assad is out of tune with the times, stuck in the era of pre-September 11 American foreign policy and betting that Mr. Bush doesn't mean what he says.

Among the graffiti in Beirut's Martyrs' Square, epicenter of the democratic movement, is a telling mix of two dictators' names, scrawled in English: “Assaddam.”

Back in the days when America, in the interest of “stability,” tolerated Middle East repression, including Syrian occupation of Lebanon, the Lebanese largely kept their heads down. But when Rafik Hariri, a former prime minister, was murdered last month with a bomb blast many blame on Syria, tens of thousands of Lebanese took to the streets in protest.

If indeed Hariri was killed by the Syrians, it was a bad miscalculation by Damascus that such atrocities could still be carried out with impunity. Such musty thinking would be of a piece with Syria's state-controlled creaking economy, where per-capita income runs about one-quarter that of Lebanon. It would also fit the scene in which, not to be outdone by the recent demonstrations in Lebanon, Mr. Assad staged his own rally Wednesday, in support of himself, in Damascus – received by the world as something of a non-event, given that rallies against him in Syria are forbidden.

More interesting, though still a question mark, is what quiet conclusions ordinary Syrians are drawing about the democratic protests here. Lebanese TV reaches into Syria, and there is considerable traffic between the countries, including many Syrian migrant workers who have now had the experience of witnessing firsthand how open defiance of the Syrian regime has been met – so far – with American support.

For now, all hangs in the balance. Lebanon's democrats face a contest of dueling demonstrations and complex political maneuvers. On one side is a coalition known loosely as the opposition, including Christians, Druze, and Sunnis, calling for Syria to end its jackboot presence in Lebanon. Mr. Bush has been speaking out strongly in support of that aim, telling Lebanese democrats that Americans will stand with them and “The world is now speaking with one voice to ensure that democracy and freedom are given a chance to flourish in Lebanon.”

On the other side is Syria itself, which has been shuffling some of its 14,000 troops in Lebanon closer to the border, but basically playing for time. And buying Syria time and bargaining clout is Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based Shiite terrorist-group-cum-political-party, which answered the democratic opposition Tuesday by staging a huge pro-Syrian rally in the Lebanese capital, outnumbering opposition turnout so far. Stories are rife that Syria bused in many of its own demonstrators to pack the ranks of Hezbollah's. But the turnout, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, has now produced much debate, both inside Lebanon and beyond, over whether Hezbollah is too vital a chunk of Lebanon's political process to ignore.

Lebanese history professor Habib Malik, offers some perspective on the rival demonstrations. “Numbers are not the issue,” he said. “The issue is whether one is on the side of repression or defying repression.” Hezbollah, he notes, is “armed to the teeth and supplying a repressive order.” The democratic protests “are utterly spontaneous and coercion-free.”

More demonstrations are planned by both sides over the next few days. In a syncopated series of events, Hezbollah will hold rallies in northern and southern Lebanon today and Sunday, and the democratic opposition is planning a demonstration tomorrow in which thousands of people wearing red, green, and white T-shirts will form a huge Lebanese flag – followed by a demonstration Monday, the four-week anniversary of Hariri's murder.



Hezbollah Lebanon