Lessons from Syria's adventures in Lebanon

March 28, 2006|By G. JEFFERSON PRICE III

Much is said these days about how awful are Syria and the regime of Bashar Assad.

The clamor against Syria reached a high point 13 months ago after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Syria was blamed for the bomb that killed Mr. Hariri and more than a dozen other people in downtown Beirut. Syrian troops who had been effectively running the country were compelled to leave in the face of widespread demonstrations against them.

Syria is on the Bush administration's list of countries in dire need of regime change.

Syria does need regime change, although not enough for Americans to be sent to war there as they were for regime change in Iraq. Mr. Assad is a mean dictator, just as his father, Hafez el Assad, was for many years, although the younger Mr. Assad has none of the talent his father had for manipulating the forces of evil in his land and elsewhere in the region.

It would be hard to believe that the Assad regime did not directly order the assassination of Mr. Hariri. Mr. Hariri was an outspoken critic of Syrian influence in Lebanon. The way he was killed is the way that the Syrian regime historically has dealt with critics. The elder Mr. Assad systematically massacred about 20,000 opponents in a few days in the Syrian city of Hama in 1982.

So these are bad guys, and the region and the world would be better off without them.

But in discussing the Syrian problem, it's worth looking at the history of the Syrian experience in Lebanon, not only to put today's events into perspective but also to derive some lessons for our relationships with other countries in the region.

The United States allowed - actually, pretty much encouraged - Syria to take over in Lebanon, not once but twice. The Lebanese who were in power in those days asked the Syrians to come in. And Israel, the first time, acted as if the Syrian presence in Lebanon was not a problem.

Sound crazy? Here's how it happened.

In 1976, Lebanon was in the first year of a civil war that would last 15 years. The fighting was escalating by the day as just about any party with an interest in destabilizing the region supplied weapons to the Christian, Muslim, Druze, Palestinian and other combatants.

The besieged Christian minority that had ruled the country for decades asked for the Syrians to come in, which they did.

U.S. officials during the Ford administration and Israelis under the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin were concerned that radical Muslims along with Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization would win the war.

Syrian troops, they thought, would prevent that. For while Hafez el Assad, like so many other Arab leaders, gave lip service to the plight of the Palestinians, he did not want them taking over Lebanon.

The Syrian army entered and stayed for the next six years. The civil war went on and on. Thousands died. The PLO at one point pretty much controlled Beirut. But it took an Israeli invasion in 1982 to get rid of the PLO in Lebanon. At the same time, the Israelis practically destroyed the Syrian armed forces and the Syrian air force.

The second time Washington let the Syrians re-enter Lebanon was in 1990. This was the prize that President George H. W. Bush gave Mr. Assad for participating in the coalition against Saddam Hussein in the Persian Gulf war. "Mr. Assad is lined up with us with a commitment to force," he said. "They are on the front line, or will be, standing up against aggression."

Mr. Assad must have laughed all the way back to Damascus. Syrian troops played no significant role, if any, in the 1991 war, yet the dividends were enormous. He was a nominal party to the destruction of one of his chief rivals in the region and his forces swept back into Lebanon immediately. And there they stayed, holding brutal sway for another decade and a half.

History is harsh. It keeps reminding people of things our leaders would like us to forget.

G. Jefferson Price III is a former foreign correspondent and an editor at The Sun. His e-mail is gjeffersonprice@yahoo.com.

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