Ever since last month’s assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, there have been almost daily crowds in Beirut of protestors demanding the removal of Syrian troops. On Tuesday, however, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators jammed the central part of the city to show their support for the continued Syrian military presence.
The pro-Syrian demonstration was called by the Shi’ite militant group Hezbollah. The protestors denounced what they called western interference in Lebanon’s internal affairs. Yet hours after the protests began, the first of Syria’s estimated 14,000 troops in Lebanon began moving from coastal and central areas to positions near the Syrian border.
For weeks there has been mounting pressure on Syria from the United States, the European Union and several Arab governments. Monday Syrian President Bashar al-Assad announced a pullback and said the redeployment to Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley should be completed by the end of the month.
That may not be enough for U.S. President George W. Bush, who told an audience in Washington this week that Syria must withdraw all of its troops from Lebanon before parliamentary elections in May.
“All Syrian military forces and intelligence personnel must withdraw before the Lebanese elections for those elections to be free and fair,” he said.
In his speech at the National Defense University in Washington, Mr. Bush sent a message of support to the Lebanese people.
“The American people are on your side," he said. "Millions across the earth are on your side. The momentum of freedom is on your side. And freedom will prevail in Lebanon.”
Since the regime of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was toppled nearly two years ago, there have been some signs of democratic change in the Middle East. In January, Iraq held its first free elections in nearly half a century.
In Saudi Arabia, limited local elections were held, the first ever in that country. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak also announced his country would hold its first direct multi-party presidential elections, and the recent Palestinian elections have spawned a growing movement for peace with Israel. But the size of Tuesday’s rally in Beirut of pro-Syrian supporters is much larger that previous anti-Syrian demonstrations.
Richard Fairbanks, a former American negotiator in the Middle East warns the West may be overestimating its ability to bring about change in Lebanon.
“One, if its seen as the West wants Syria out, that would not be helpful to swaying the minds of the Shia and perhaps some others in Lebanon," he said. "Second, these calls by the Europeans and Americans are not self-executing and there is not another counterforce on the ground. So as much as the majority of the people want this to happen, it’s not going to be so simple.”
Another Middle East expert, Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland says…momentum for change must come from Arab nations themselves.
“We should support the forces that are calling for democracy, but we can’t be the primary agent of change," he said. "They have to be the primary agent of change.”