Toss Bashar Assad Out of Both Lebanon and Syria

Danielle Pletka is vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

If Syria is responsible for the assassination of Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri -- as many observers believe -- it is only the most recent in a long line of that country’s transgressions. And it must not go unanswered.

It marks a moment when much of the world is united against the regime of Bashar Assad, Syria’s tyrannical dictator. It is clear that quashing Assad in Lebanon would strike a blow for liberty there. As important, it could strike a blow for a free Syria, and wider liberty in the Arab world.

Since 1970, Syria has been dominated by the Assads, a ruthless clique of Alawite politicians. The Alawites, a breakaway Muslim sect not dissimilar to Shiites, make up just 12% of the majority Sunni Syrian population.

Bashar Assad’s father, Hafez, sent troops into Lebanon in the mid-1970s to quell its bloody, sectarian civil war. Syria never left, and the world tolerated this de facto annexation, reckoning that a strong man in Beirut was better than chaos. In fact, Lebanon has been more peaceful, though one terror group, Hezbollah, continues to operate with Syrian support throughout Lebanon.


But now Assad is under the gun as never before. He is an object of American fury for his sponsorship of terror, his meddling in Iraq and the occupation of Lebanon. He is an object of French fury for his crude manipulation of last year’s presidential elections in Lebanon, in which the presidency was stolen to reinstall a Syrian stooge.

The unusual confluence of French and American anger resulted in a forceful U.N. Security Council resolution in September demanding the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon and the liberation of the Lebanese body politic from Syrian interference.

Hariri’s murder should solidify the world’s will against Assad. Hariri was a pragmatist who worked with Syria in his two tours as prime minister. Last year, however, the Syrian manipulation of Lebanon’s election forced an angry resignation. Since then, he had come to pose an intolerable challenge to Assad, beginning to unify the Lebanese across their many sectarian lines for the first time since the civil war. He may yet succeed: In the wake of his murder, Lebanese of all stripes have taken to the streets to protest Damascus’ interference in their lives and government.

Syria and the pro-Syria Beirut government have hung tough, refusing to accommodate demands for a fully independent investigation of the assassination, a caretaker government and international observers for upcoming parliamentary elections. Rather, there have been ominous threats from Damascus, and from Hezbollah, about a return to “instability” in Lebanon. Yet the sine qua non of a truly stable Lebanon is in fact the withdrawal of Syrian troops, the disarmament of Hezbollah and the removal of Syria’s unofficial Beirut ambassadors, such as Rustom Ghazali, the head of Syrian military intelligence.

But liberty for Lebanon should not be the endgame for the United States, France or the United Nations. Syria itself must be freed from the Assad dictatorship, with its legacy of poverty, corruption and death, including the 1982 murder of up to 20,000 opponents of the regime in the city of Hama.

The costs of standing up to Syria in Beirut and in Damascus should not be insurmountable. Assad is feeling the world’s censure now, claiming that he will begin to remove troops from Lebanon. A small increase in pressure might move him out altogether.

And Sunni Arab governments in the region may well be amenable to challenging the Alawite status quo. Even the Shiite-dominated government in Iraq has taken a stand against Assad, closing its border with Syria several times. If Syria continues on its current path it could find itself an island in its own region, denied trade, tourism, hard currency. A free Lebanon could even exclude Syrian guest workers -- now exported to Lebanon’s free market to relieve high unemployment at home.

In the past, the United States has flinched from confronting the Syrian regime at home and in Lebanon. In the 1980s, 244 U.S. Marines were murdered in Beirut amid the unrest. We pulled out and washed our hands of the quagmire.

The time has come to try again, not with Marines but with the newly energized Lebanese opposition. The perils of failure are no worse than the status quo; the fruits of victory, not just against terror and dictatorship but for a free Arab people, would be great indeed.