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An opportunity in Syria

THE POST-Hariri assassination dynamic in Lebanon and Syria should be studied closely for what it can tell us about how indigenous forces resist or challenge powerful indigenous governments. The Syrian-Lebanese relationship is now the crucible for testing new forms of American and Western political intervention in the Arab world. A new layer of complexity was added to this when Syria and Iran announced that they were forming a strategic alliance to confront the threats against them both.

Lebanese opposition and other forces who have angrily called for Syria to leave their country reflect intense pent-up anger here at Syria's powerful role in Lebanon. Damascus has dominated decision-making since its troops came here -- with Lebanese government and Arab League approval -- to restore order during the Lebanese civil war nearly 30 years ago. An entire generation of Lebanese has grown up knowing that all important decisions in their country must be approved, or initiated, by the leadership in Syria. That reality has slowly gnawed away at many Lebanese' sense of self-respect and national dignity.

Opposition to Syria reached a new level of fervor and clarity last September, when Damascus engineered a broadly unpopular three-year extension of Lebanese President Emile Lahoud's term. Opposition forces heightened their demand that Syria immediately pull out its remaining 15,000 troops from Lebanon.

Prime Minister Hariri's murder was the last straw. Despite the absence of any firm evidence of the perpetrators, the killing spontaneously and very emotionally pushed hundreds of thousands of Lebanese into the streets to accuse Syria and the Lebanese government of responsibility, and to demand that Syria pull its troops out of the country.

Syria has repeatedly denied that it was involved in Hariri's murder. Significantly, though, in the past week every Syrian denial has elicited harsher Lebanese accusations and more explicit calls for an end to Syria's ''occupation" as well as calls for the Lebanese government to resign.

Simultaneously, Western diplomatic pressure on Syria over the past two years has aimed to have Syria speed up its withdrawal from Lebanon, stop interfering politically in Lebanese domestic affairs, cooperate more effectively on restoring security inside Iraq, stop its support for Hizbullah and Palestinian ''rejectionist" groups that resist current peace-making terms with Israel, and desist from alleged programs to develop weapons of mass destruction. Syria has offered replies, explanations, denials and professions of innocence to all those allegations, but unconvincingly in the eyes of the United States, France, and most other countries.

Western pressure on Damascus is escalating briskly. The US Congress passed the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act last year, and President Bush imposed only a few of its lighter economic sanctions on Damascus. The heat was intensified in early September when Syria seemed set to extend Lahoud's term. Washington, Paris, Berlin, and others worked closely together to pass UN Security Council Resolution 1559, calling on all ''foreign troops" (i.e., Syrian forces) to leave Lebanon.

After the assassination, Washington recalled its ambassador in Syria for consultations, including on how the United States could apply more sanctions against Syria. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the same day that Syria's presence in Lebanon was ''destabilizing," and President Bush said Syria should comply with Resolution 1559's demand that its troops leave Lebanon. He also said Syria should allow Lebanese parliamentary elections scheduled for May to be free and fair. Washington and France are pressing the Lebanese government to conduct an honest, even an international, investigation of Hariri's murder.

''Syria is out of step with the progress being made in the greater Middle East," the president said.

Just as the extension of Lahoud's term last September pushed the Lebanese opposition across the threshold of a confrontational red line with Damascus that it had always resisted crossing, the Hariri assassination seems to have triggered a similarly significant new political dynamic -- this time in Lebanese, Western, and UN dealings with Syria, expressed in a salvo of simultaneous diplomatic gestures, statements, and soft threats.

The fascinating new dimension is that events could lead, in the first instance, to an accelerated Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, and faster reform movements inside both Lebanon and Syria. More important, in the second instance, is whether Syrian withdrawal and faster reforms would embolden the United States and friends to continue pressuring Syria and other Middle Eastern states where policy changes are sought, such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Egypt.

Rami G. Khouri is editor-at-large of the Beirut-based Daily Star. 

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