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Monday, March 14, 2005

The Lebanon Stakes (OpinionJournal)


Hezbollah has a history of killing Americans.

We are now approaching the 20th anniversaries of the murders of Robert Dean Stethem and William Buckley. The CIA station chief in Beirut, Buckley was beheaded by the Hezbollah on June 3, 1985. Stethem, a Navy diver, was murdered by Hezbollah the same month aboard hijacked TWA Flight 847. An eyewitness described Stethem's killing:

"They singled him out because he was American and a soldier. . . . They dragged him out of his seat, tied his hands and then beat him up. . . . They kicked him in the face and knee caps and kept kicking him until they had broken all his ribs. Then they tried to knock him out with the butt of a pistol--they kept hitting him over the head but he was very strong and they couldn't knock him out. . . . Later they dragged him away and I believe shot him."

So this is hezb Allah, the Party of God, the spear of Iranian influence in the Levant and chief local enforcer of Syria's occupation of Lebanon. Last week, it organized a counter-demonstration in Beirut on Syria's behalf, following weeks of anti-Syrian protests that had led to the resignation of puppet Lebanese Prime Minister Omar Karami. Now Mr. Karami has been renamed to his post by puppet Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, a move the Lebanese opposition wasted no time in denouncing. The dividing line in Lebanon, separating a pro-independence coalition of Druze, Christians and Sunnis from the pro-Syrian Shiite Hezbollah, has now become clear.

As have the stakes. The size of Tuesday's rally has been exaggerated: Our Lebanese sources tell us there were around 350,000 protestors, not 500,000 as commonly cited, and that many of them were bused in direct from Damascus. Also notable was that while the demonstrators waved Lebanese flags, they mounted Syrian President Bashar Assad's portrait. But all this only underscores how much rides on the question of Lebanon's independence--and how far Syria, Hezbollah and Iran may go to preserve the status quo.

For Syria the stakes are economic and political. An estimated one million Syrian guest workers reside in Lebanon and remit their wages to relatives back home, and Syrian officials have plundered much of the international aid Lebanon received over the past decade. The Bekaa Valley also serves as a lucrative transit point for narcotics and other contraband. Without Lebanon, Syria's economy might collapse.

So, too, might the Assad dynasty: Bashar's grip on power is far less sure than his father's, and the loss of prestige that a withdrawal from Lebanon would entail might well be politically fatal to him and the minority Allawite clique through which he rules.

For Iran the stakes are strategic. Its elite Revolutionary Guards operate terrorist training camps in the Bekaa. Iran has also placed upward of 10,000 missiles in Lebanon, including the medium-range Fajr-5 rocket, bringing half of Israel within their reach. It thus maintains the option of igniting a new Mideast war at any moment, as well as a hedge against the possibility of a pre-emptive Israeli strike on its nuclear installations. Yet if Syria withdraws, no pro-independence Lebanese government will indulge Iran's military presence. The Lebanese have had enough of allowing their territory to serve, Belgium-like, as the battleground of choice for foreign powers.

For Hezbollah, the stakes are greater still. During the years when Israel maintained a security zone in southern Lebanon, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah could present himself as a patriot fighting occupation. But Israel removed its forces from Lebanon in 2000, and now Nasrallah's support for Syrian occupation exposes a different set of motives: not patriotic, but Jihadist. And the last thing the Jihadists want is for Lebanon to again become a flourishing, pluralist, cosmopolitan Arab state.

Syria's withdrawal would likely precipitate a Lebanese decision to enforce U.N. Resolution 520, which requires the Lebanese Army to patrol its border with Israel, a function now performed by Hezbollah. At length, it could lead to the disbanding of Hezbollah as an independent militia, though its terrorist wings would likely continue to operate.

How does the Bush Administration manage the crisis? There are reports that it is considering a softer line toward Hezbollah in the hopes of encouraging its acquiescence to a Syrian withdrawal. But we are confident President Bush would not lightly betray the memory of Stethem, Buckley or the hundreds of other Americans killed by Hezbollah over the years.

The latest news is that the young Assad promised U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larsen on Saturday that Syria will withdraw completely. This is promising. But given the stakes all around, skepticism is in order and world pressure will have to continue. The help of the French here has been welcome, due in part to Jacques Chirac's personal ties to the murdered Lebanese patriot Rafik Hariri. However, France still declines to call Hezbollah a terrorist organization.

The Cedar Revolution began as an outburst of rage against Hariri's killers. It has been sustained by what former U.S. diplomat Dennis Ross calls "the absence of fear"--the belief that the Syrian government will not do in Beirut's Martyrs' Square what the Chinese did in Beijing's Tiananmen. A joint Franco-American declaration that a crackdown in Lebanon would have serious consequences for Damascus would help give all Lebanese patriots the courage to move forward.