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On Point

From "The Beirut Spring" to Toppling Assad


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 streets.

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 permeable.

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 might.

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