Bush's tipping point with Syria

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Starting this week, the Bush doctrine of drying up support for terrorists by democratizing Islamic nations will be put through another wringer. The US wants the UN Security Council to hold Syria "accountable" for its role in killing a top Lebanese leader.

A UN report last week implicated high-level Syrian officials in the bombing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on Feb. 14. The report found the assassination "could not have ... [occurred] without the approval of top-ranked security officials and could not have been further organized without the collusion of their counterparts in the Lebanese security services."

The Security Council meets Tuesday to discuss what action to take. For the Bush administration, the options are difficult.

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The US is militarily exhausted by Iraq and Afghanistan, and can hardly pick a fight with Syria's president, Bashar Assad. Nor can it politically afford right now to further erode America's international reputation by operating outside the UN Security Council.

Yet not only did Syria try to suppress democracy in Lebanon by this assassination through its spy network in its small neighbor. It also has not prevented insurgents in Iraq from operating within Syria.

The US also calculates that the Assad regime will probably follow past patterns, offering just enough concessions to avoid a serious challenge to its survival, and then resume its terrorist support in the future.

But then, the alternative to Assad is difficult to imagine: The strongest opposition groups are fundamentalist Islamic, while secular opposition figures abroad are weak and splintered. The fall of Assad could bring a mess in the Arab world. It's not even clear if he's fully in charge, having taken power after his father's passing four years ago.

Treating the assassination as simply a law-enforcement matter, and demanding an international trial of Syrian figures, would hardly bring about reforms needed in that country toward democracy and an end to support of terrorists.

While Assad has eased the domestic political climate somewhat, Syria still remains a classic police state, using foreign issues to divert attention from its harsh rule.

Trying to play relatively good guys off bad guys within the Damascus establishment has been Washington's main strategy up to now. That could either be a buy-time strategy much like Assad's, or one that banks on an internal coup (with unknown consequences).

A possible American military incursion into Syrian territory to chase Iraqi insurgents would send a threatening signal to the regime. But as France, Saudi Arabia, and many other nations now appear willing to alter the regime's bad habits through UN sanctions, such a bold US step right now would be unwise.

The Lebanese people, like the Iraqis, are currently shoring up their democracy. Preventing Syria from harming that course should be the focus of the US and the UN far more than trying to force democracy on Syria.

International economic sanctions would send a message to the regime as well as to Syrians that they, too, can help lift the Arab world by relying on ballots instead of bombs.

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