Losing Lebanon

WHILE THE hapless West stands by, a Syrian campaign to retake Lebanon is unfolding as crudely as the plot of Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None.”

One by one, three anti-Syrian members of the Lebanese parliament have been murdered, reducing the majority of independent Prime Minister Fouad Siniora to a slim six seats. President Emile Lahoud, a puppet of Syria, and the pro-Syrian speaker, Nabih Berri, refuse to allow elections to be held to replace them. But that’s perhaps a moot point, as Berri hasn’t allowed the parliament to meet at all since last summer. The parliament should have elected a new president in 2004, but under Syrian threat, then-Prime Minister Rafik Hariri — in whose subsequent murder Damascus is also implicated — extended Lahoud’s term three more years. Now the parliament must elect a new president by September, and Damascus and its allies rightly fear that the current body will not anoint another Syrian lapdog. There can be no benign interpretation of the latest assassinations.

In 2004, the U.N. Security Council resolved that Lebanon should hold free and fair elections “devised without foreign interference or influence.” That promise has not been kept. Now the Cedar Revolution, which forced Syria to end its military occupation of Lebanon, is unraveling. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with Siniora on Tuesday in Paris, but where is the U.S. or U.N. plan for free Lebanese elections? If the Lebanese parliament cannot meet in Beirut without the fear of Hezbollah- or Syrian-inspired violence, and if the United Nations cannot guarantee its safety, then let the parliament sit in exile — perhaps in New York.

The international community ought to have been jolted out of its passivity by the car-bombing last week that killed six U.N. peacekeepers — three Spaniards and three Colombians — in southern Lebanon. Syria condemned the bombing, but it was widely interpreted as yet another warning to the United Nations not to proceed with the tribunal looking into the Hariri assassination if it does not wish to see Lebanon further destabilized. Syrian President Bashar Assad has signaled that keeping the tribunal from indicting senior Syrians is a critical, perhaps even existential, priority. Although this page has endorsed engagement with Syria, there can be no compromise on the work of the tribunal, which is as vital as any war crimes tribunal. And there can be no retreat from Lebanon’s right to sovereignty.

Damascus certainly has an interest in seeing a friendly government come to power in Beirut. Stopping the violence and allowing elections to proceed is a better way to achieve that goal.