PHILADELPHIA - When this year started, no one could have imagined Syria would pull its 14,000 occupation troops and thousands of intelligence agents out of Lebanon in the foreseeable future.
That withdrawal was completed Tuesday, leaving Lebanon free of Syrian soldiers for the first time in 29 years.
Most Lebanese are both exultant and apprehensive. They remember that Syrian troops arrived in 1976 at the invitation of a Christian-led Lebanese government to put down a brutal civil war that didn't formally end until 1990. Some Lebanese are anxious that without Big Daddy Syria, their past instincts for bloodletting will resurface.
But Lebanese are sick of bloodshed and civil war. The Syrian exodus "means we can't blame anyone else anymore," said Jamil Mroue, editor of the Beirut Daily Star, in a phone interview. "Now we have to bear the consequences of our own folly or wisdom." Lebanese now have the chance to repair their system and, perhaps, set an example for the region.
Which raises these fascinating questions: Why did those Syrian troops finally leave? And was it linked to events in Iraq?
Iraq definitely figures in the picture. The U.S. invasion shook up the region and shook up Syria, which figured it might be next on the list for "regime change."
The youthful Syrian leader, Bashar Assad, failed to understand that the times were changing. Despite a call in 2004 by the U.N. Security Council for Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon, he increased Syria's meddling in Lebanese politics. This meddling offended not only the United States but also Syria's strongest Western supporter, President Jacques Chirac of France, who had promoted Mr. Assad as the new model of Arab leadership.
But Syrian troops would still be in Lebanon today had it not been for the heinous events of Valentine's Day: Former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was blown up on a main Beirut street by a massive car bomb. There's hardly anyone in Lebanon who doesn't blame Syrian intelligence or its Lebanese agents. The planners clearly thought that Lebanon, and the region, would still put up with Syrian-style assassinations. They were wrong.
Mr. Hariri, a billionaire developer who had rebuilt much of war-torn Beirut, had been leaning toward joining the anti-Syrian opposition. His death sent hundreds of thousands into the streets in protest. His death also provoked international anger against Syria, not just from the Bush team but also from Mr. Chirac and from key Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia. (Mr. Hariri was close to the ruling family.)
Where did Iraq figure in the mix? Mr. Mroue says the Lebanese opposition was buoyed in the February demonstrations by what the Lebanese had seen of the Iraqi vote in January. He noted that Iraqi elections were held because of pressure from the Shiite Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who pushed for early elections when U.S. officials were trying to delay them. "Finally, after all this [U.S.] talk [about democracy], the Americans delivered on an Iraqi agenda and got out of the way. There was a free Iraqi election without rigging. This made an impact," Mr. Mroue said.
In other words, the free Iraqi elections encouraged Lebanese to call for elections free from Syrian pressure.
One other key point: The Bush administration decided not to oppose the participation of the Shiite political party, Hezbollah, in elections. The administration considers Hezbollah a terrorist organization because of past attacks on U.S. interests and on Israelis. But Hezbollah is the best-organized political party in Lebanon, well accepted by the Lebanese opposition. The White House accepted these facts.
So the administration got out of the way and let the Lebanese push on the ground while a Western-Arab-U.N. coalition pushed from the rear. And the Syrians left.
This formula for change is unique to Lebanon, but it holds lessons for change elsewhere in the Arab world.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.