April 21, 2005 | Front Page Magazine

The Road Back to Damascus

By: Amb. Richard Carlson & Barbara Newman.

There is no better time than the present for the U.S. to press its advantage in the Mideast; to further pressure Syrian president Bashar Assad to rid the country of its Alawite Baathist domination—the tyrannical legacy of Assad's father—and to make permanent Assad's recent promise to remove Syrian troops and equipment and its thousands of spies and intelligence officers from Lebanon.

Assad has said the troops will be gone by the end of April, but Syria-watchers we have talked to in both Washington and Beirut say that intelligence operatives by the hundreds are burrowing in, expecting to re-emerge. For example, Syria has already packed up and moved out of its intelligence headquarters at the Beau Rivage Hotel, a water-front resort in West Beirut used by Syria for detention and torture, but its operators simply have gone underground. 

“They know from past experience that the Americans won't stick around for the long haul.  After a few months, or a year or two, the U.S. will change its focus, maybe when Bush leaves, and the Syrians will pop right back up,” a former Lebanese political figure told us in a phone conversation.  “Unless the U.S. forces Assad out of office, and his inner circle with him, he will continue as the boss of Lebanon.  It's too important to them, the money is too big.” 

Brigadier-General Roustom Ghazali, Assad's Lebanon intelligence chief, was seen the other day at his headquarters in the town of Anjar, in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, a couple of hour's drive from Beirut.  He reportedly looked content. The valley is also headquarters for Hezbollah, the Iranian-funded terrorist organization, which has considerable political clout in Lebanon.  Ghazali, friendly with Sayyad Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's leader, is famous for summoning Lebanese politicians, sometimes with their wives in tow, to Anjar, so as to amuse himself and his cronies with sadistically creative ways of humiliating them. General Ghazali has at least 20 stations for Mukkabarat (the Syrian secret intelligence service) in Lebanon. The Syrian intelligence agents “are as bad as the Nazis,” a former Lebanese newspaper editor told us.  “There are thousands of Lebanese political prisoners rotting in Syrian prisons and the Syrians simply deny they are there.”

Syrian President Bashar Assad, the weak and uncertain son of the brutal old dictator Hafez al- Assad, made a terrible mistake when the Syrians arranged for the February 14 killing of Lebanon's former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri  in downtown Beirut. The bombing, true to the lethal style in which Assad's father had always addressed political problems, was followed by a completely unexpected international uproar.  Assad and his advisors neglected to consider how truly broad and influential was Hariri's circle of friends and acquaintances.  Hariri was one of the richest men in the world and thousands of less rich but just as sophisticated politicians, international socialites, jet set celebrities, faded European royalty and Saudi Princes knew him or had been on the receiving end of his bounty.  Jacques Chirac's wife, for example, was head of Hariri's foundation in Paris; ex- US Senator Charles Percy headed Hariri's foundation in the US. The assassination was an enormously successful political career move for Hariri, who was suddenly transformed from an oleaginous and corrupt conspicuous-consumer (He was trying to build a $60 million, 105,000 square foot house in Washington DC, larger than the White House) who had bribed his way into an enormous accumulation of wealth to a martyred and noble figure.  What was the idiotic Assad thinking, one wonders?  The answer presumably is that he wasn't.  His father had blown-up Bashir Gemayel in 1983 as Gemayel was about to be sworn in as the new president of Lebanon and got away with it. Twenty-two years later the world is a lot smaller place and dynamiting your rivals isn't quite the isolated act it once was.

Hairri's murder was a terrific excuse for Lebanese to come together in protest against Syria's domination of their lives and their economy and in March millions of them did that. The iron is hot.  When he was alive, Hariri was just another rich crook famous for his philanthropy, like a Lebanese Huey Long—a buck for him, 50 cents for the people.  Now, he is a political martyr and Assad and his father's cronies are the bad guys.  The U.S. should keep the iron hot, not through military action, but with talk and lots of it.  The president can pressure the regime to get out of Lebanon, to make the hated Alawite minority drop its power and move on. And the U.S. should keep that iron sizzling.

– Richard Carlson & Barbara Newman are co-hosts of “Danger Zone” on WMAL radio 630 in Washington, DC. Carlson is Vice Chairman of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and Chairman of the Board of Intermedia, Inc. of Washington and London. Newman, co-author of the recent Random House book “Lightening out of Lebanon,” is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies



Lebanon Syria