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Lebanon Presents New Headaches for Neighboring Syria

Lebanon is in the throes of what some have labeled the Cedar Revolution. Fueling the popular discord there is anger at neighboring Syria, which has long maintained a role in Lebanese affairs, as well as garrisoning troops there. Syria finds itself under increasing international pressure.

For years, Syria has treated Lebanon as its back yard. Even after the 1989 agreement that ended 15 years of civil war, Syria kept some 15,000 troops and a wide intelligence network in Lebanon, and wielded considerable clout over Lebanese political affairs.

Syrian-born Murhaf Jouejati was an advisor to the Syrian delegation during the Middle East peace talks in the 1990s. Mr. Jouejati, who now teaches Middle East politics at George Washington University, says Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad sees a continuing role in Lebanon as crucial to Syrian security.

"He wants his [government's] presence in Lebanon for many reasons, to provide security for Lebanon and its continued stability, a stability that is linked to Syrian security,” said Mr. Jouejati. “This is on the one hand. And on the other hand, to provide security for Syria from Israel. So now that there are these international pressures for Syria to withdraw from Lebanon, he is in a very tight position."

But the assassination February 14 of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which many Lebanese blame on Syria, sparked street protests in Beirut against Syria and its influence.

There is no evidence as to who is responsible for Mr. Hariri's death and Syria denies any involvement. But, as former U.S. Ambassador William Rugh, an adjunct scholar at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, points out, if Syria was responsible for the killing, it has certainly backfired on Damascus.

"If Syria was responsible for the assassination, it was a terrible mistake on their part, a tactical blunder, because they have now unleashed a popular revolt against their presence, which was certainly an unintended consequence of the assassination," said Mr. Rugh.

Prime Minister Omar Karami and his government have resigned but the protests continue, demanding an immediate withdrawal of Syrian troops. Those calls have been echoed by international leaders, including President Bush.

General John Abazaid, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, said a Syrian departure from Lebanon is inevitable.

"I believe it is inevitable that Syrian forces will leave, that Syrian forces and the Syrian government will do a reassessment of the role they play in the region," noted Mr. Abazaid.

Mr. Rugh says a Syrian withdrawal will greatly cut Syria's influence in the region.

"If the Lebanese popular uprising continues to take its course and results in an unfriendly government in Beirut, that's a kind of a disaster for Syria, not only the withdrawal of troops but the decline of Syrian influence there," added Mr. Rugh.

Syria has already promised to start withdrawing troops but has given no timetable. Mr. Assad told Time Magazine that it would be in the next few months, but was no more specific.

The United States has also accused Syria of allowing Iraqi insurgents in its territory. Syria denies this charge as well. General Abazaid said Monday that the level of Syrian government involvement with those insurgents is not clear, and that Syria has been taking some steps against them. Syria has turned over to Iraq the half-brother of Saddam Hussein. But General Abazaid said Syria remains, as he put it, unhelpful.

Mr. Jouejati says Syria is already nervous about the U.S. troop presence in neighboring Iraq. He says Mr. Assad would like to get some kind of dialogue going with Washington. But Mr. Jouejati believes the Bush administration is not interested.

"I do not believe that Washington is interested in a dialogue,” he said. “And it has been escalating the situation with Syria. The escalation of demands has intensified. I think it may be, and I hope I'm wrong, it may be too late to carry on a dialogue between Washington and Damascus the way Syria wants."

Syria has made no direct comment on the demonstrations or resignations in Beirut.