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Even if Syria leaves Lebanon, its influence will long linger



Published: Wed, February 23, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Syria has long overstayed its welcome in Lebanon and it time for the rest of the world to join the thousands of street demonstrators in Beirut who have been calling for Syria to withdraw.

There's some indication that Syria is listening. Amr Moussa, secretary general of the Arab League said after meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad that Syria would soon begin withdrawing some of its 15,000 troops from Lebanon.

There are enough qualifiers there to give anyone pause. They'll begin to withdraw some of the troops on a time schedule that is no more definite than soon.

Response to civil war

Lebanon has been a troubled country for decades. In 1976, when Syrian troops entered Lebanon, there may have been some justification for their presence in trying to end a nasty civil war that ultimately wrecked that once-thriving, agreeably cosmopolitan commercial center of the Mideast.

The United States and France, which had troops there as part of a multinational force pulled out after the barracks bombings of Oct. 23, 1983, when 241 U.S. Marines and 40 French paratroopers were killed.

In the vacuum that remained, Syria was seen as the only force that could exercise control over Hezbollah guerrillas, keep the lid on Palestinian refugee camps and prevent various Lebanese factions from reverting to civil war.

Even today, Lebanese Prime Minister Omar Karami asks: "If Syria leaves the country, who will disarm Hezbollah? Who will disarm the Palestinian camps?" That sentiment is not surprising, since during the three decades that Syria has had troops in Lebanon, it has managed to insinuate itself into Lebanon's institutions, especially the political and military.

Response to assassination

But Syria overplayed its hand with the assassination of Rafi Hariri, an ex-premier and an architect of rebuilding Beirut after the civil war. Maybe Syria did not directly kill Hariri, but few believe that Syria wasn't somehow complicit. It's too much a part of a long murderous pattern, begun under Syria's brutal dictator Hafez Assad and now seemingly continued by his son, Bashar.

Hariri's crime was to object to Syria's forcing a three-year extension of the term of its puppet president in Lebanon, Emile Lahoud. Syria rightly saw that in anything like a free election the Lebanese would repudiate its presence.

His punishment was death, and that has proved to be too much for the Lebanese people and the civilized world to tolerate.

President Bush is leading the call for Syria to extract itself from its neighbor. Europe and the Arab nations should join the call.

But even if the troops begin to leave, it will take the indignation of the Lebanese people to combat the Syrian influence that has taken root. Hariri is gone, but his dream of a free, prosperous and rebuilt nation remains in the hands of those who mourn him.




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