Syria’s Self-Defeat

Damascus has yet to learn its lesson from its meddling in Lebanon. It continues to target and kill individuals who oppose its influence. Yet, the tighter Syria tries to hold on, the looser its grip becomes.

Syrian President Bashar Assad just doesnt get it. Last February, his government orchestrated the assassination of formerLebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in a brazen effort to reassert Syrian dominance over Lebanese politics. The result was a Cedar Revolution in which the Lebanese people took to the streets to protest Syrias meddling and to demand answers about the killing. Enormous rallies in Beiruts Martyrs' Square forged a new generation of Lebanese activists, and within weeks, the pro-Syrian Lebanese government had collapsed beneath the weight of popular outrage. Less than three months later, Syria pulled its troops out of Lebanon in response to international pressure, ending its nearly 30-year occupation.

Apparently, Damascuss old habits die hard. In late September, an all-too-familiar scenario played itself out just north of the Lebanese capital. May Chidiac, a prominent Lebanese television journalist, narrowly escaped assassination. The method was familiar:explosives were packed under the drivers seat of her SUV. Today, Chidiac lays in intensive care at a Beirut hospitalminus her left arm and leg.

The attempt on Chidiacs life is one of nearly a half dozen assassinations or assassination attempts that have shaken Lebanon since last February. All car bombs, the murders have principally targeted politicians and journalists deemed critical of Syrian influence in Lebanon. In June, columnist Samir Kassir and former Lebanese Communist Party leader George Hawi were killed by car bombs. In each instance, the blame has been placed squarely at the feet of Damascus and its Lebanese proxies.

Even Syrias supporters havent been spared Damascuss wrath. In July, Elias Murr, the Lebanese defense minister, was the target of a car bomb. Opposition leader Walid Jumblatt speculated that it was part of a plot to eliminate all the witnesses or everyone able to give information on the assassination of Rafik Hariri. Jumblatts explanation was confirmed early last week when Murr, appearing on a talk show, described a confrontation in which the former head of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon threatened his life.

Until this year, years of bullying and intimidation have led Damascus to believe that it can do as it pleases in Lebanon. But Assad has failed to grasp the lesson of Lebanons Cedar Revolution. Ironically for Damascus, it is their willingness to assert their power over Lebanon that has led them to lose grip of it. The assassination of an independent Lebanese politician brought the house down on Syrias military presence, and attracted more international scrutiny of Syria. Now, hard-nosed German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis is leading the U.N. investigation of the Hariri assassination that recently led to the detention of four pro-Syrian Lebanese security officials and charged them with plotting Hariris death. The continuing campaign of violence has only served to further isolate Syria, galvanize opposition to Syria-backed President mile Lahoud, and bolster a nonsectarian Lebanese national identity. With every new attempt at intimidation, Syrias grasp slips a bit more.

If Assad continues to follow his assassination policy, or if the U.N. investigation implicates Damascus and its stooges in the Lebanese security services, Assad could very well lose his key Lebanese asset, President Lahoud. Losing Lahoud could spark a virtuous cycle of reform and reconciliation in the region. With Lahoud gone, the ascension of a president willing to disarm Hezbollah becomes increasingly feasible. Syria would then lose its only chit in its continuing conflict with Israel, thereby opening the possibility of a renewal of the Syria-Israel peace track.

With Syria blundering, Washington may be salivating at the prospect of pushing a teetering Assad from his perch. But the Bush administration would do best to let the current situation continue to unfold. For now, at least, Assad is doing enough to undermine himself. And, over the last nine months, the Lebanese have shown the world that, when pushed, they are willing to push back. Once again, the streets of Beirut have been filled with Lebanons multiethnic crowds. They are united both by fury and by a vision of an independent, inclusive, and pluralistic Lebanese state. Syrias arrogance gave them both.