by Austin Bay
January 17, 2006
Two events sparked Lebanon's 2005 "Beirut spring," that "street
revolution" of protests and pro-democracy demonstrations which ultimately
forced Syria to end its two-decade-long military occupation of Lebanon.
The first revolutionary fire-starter was Iraq's historic January
2005 election. The Iraqis trek to the polls, despite the threats of
terrorists, encouraging democrats throughout the Middle East, but
particularly in Lebanon.
Murder, however, provided the ultimate spur. Lebanese Prime
Minister Rafik Hariri was a Lebanese nationalist with the guts to challenge
Syria's vicious and corrupt Assad regime. The Valentine's Day 2005
assassination of Hariri pushed hundreds of thousands of Lebanese into the
Lebanese of all political and religious stripes suspected the
orders to kill Hariri came from Syria. The assassination was clearly an act
of terror designed to thwart Lebanese nationalist goals and democratic
aspirations -- and continue Syrian control.
Prior to 9-11, the assassination might have achieved those
goals. There were no other choices. New Iraq, however, has created new
political and democratic options.
Instead of cowing the population, the assassination energized
Lebanon's opposition. Lebanese aggressiveness, backed by explicit Western
support, forced Syria to pull out. Media coverage of Lebanese protests put
Syria under intense pressure. The American Army on Syria's border, and an
Iraqi government angry at Syrian support of Iraqi terrorists, certainly
encouraged Syrian caution.
In the aftermath of Syria's withdrawal, key questions regarding
Hariri's murder remained. The biggest ones centered on Syrian dictator
Bashar Assad. Did Assad give the orders to kill Hariri?
The United Nations ordered an investigation of Hariri's
assassination. German jurist Detlev Mehlis pursued leads with a fierceness
that surprised the Syrian government and impressed critics who thought the
U.N. investigation would be a "feel good" gesture with little substance.
Mehlis finessed Syrian attempts to obstruct his investigation and ultimately
produced evidence of Syrian involvement in the crime.
The legal pursuit of Assad continues. Last week, Serge Brammertz
of Belgium officially replaced Mehlis. Brammertz has served as a prosecutor
for the International Criminal Court. He is tasked with continuing the
Hariri probe and investigating terrorist bombings in Lebanon since October
2004. Brammertz also has spine -- he has summoned Bashar Assad as a witness.
Assad can ignore Brammertz -- the prosecutor has no means of
enforcement other than political pressure. Political pressure, however, is
building. Former Syrian Vice President Abdel-Halim Khaddam is talking.
Khaddam -- a 74 year-old politician who once worked for Bashar Assad's
father, Hafez al-Assad -- resigned as vice president in June 2005 and went
into exile. (Hafez al-Assad died in 2000.)
Khaddam recently told the German magazine Der Speigel that "the
attack on Hariri was ... one that could only have been set into motion by
the highest-ranking members of the power structure in Lebanon and Syria."
"I am convinced," Khaddam added, "that the order (to kill
Hariri) came from Assad."
Khaddam is no democratic dream. He's a Syrian Baathist and a
Hafez al-Assad "Old Guard" loyalist. He helped orchestrate Syria's
occupation of Lebanon. He understands the world has changed, however, and
has begun organizing a government in exile. He claims he supports political
and economic liberalization. He told an Arab interviewer that Syria must
"change from within. ... If the main vector for change is external, then the
interests of the country are harmed." However, Khaddam knows international
political support for regime change is essential.
Khaddam isn't clean, he's a conniver -- but he may be a
transitional leader acceptable to Syria's security services, and one
certainly preferable to the chaos of a civil war.
Unlike rogue Iran, Syria lacks oil cash. It's an economic basket
case and vulnerable to economic pressure. Unlike North Korea, it cannot seal
itself in a Stalinist shell. TV satellite dishes dot too many Syrian roofs.
Assad can kick journalists out of Damascus, but Syria's borders are
On its own, an international judicial inquiry won't topple
Assad. However, the Syrian military, pressured by U.N. investigators,
squeezed by economic sanctions and goaded by a government in exile, just