Lifting Syria From Its Web

In the long, tangled history of Mideast terrorism, Syria hasn't been so much a perpetrator as a facilitator. Those days must now end with the terrorist bombing on Monday of Rafik Hariri, the most popular political leader in Lebanon, a country Syria occupies and largely controls.

Global intolerance for Syria's support of various terrorists groups hit a high point last October when the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1559 indicating Syria's 14,000 troops in Lebanon must exit. The UN demand - with France and the US working together - was part of a larger post-9/11 effort by the US to dismantle the region's terrorist-support structures.

No evidence yet links Syria to the killing of Mr. Hariri, a key opposition figure and former prime minister who was starting to openly oppose the occupation. But the political dynamics of Syria's grip on Lebanon were certainly behind the bombing. It's well known that Syria's generals don't like figures like Hariri upsetting their lucrative businesses in Lebanon.

The Lebanese people, with some courage, now openly charge Syria with complicity in the killing. That might embolden them to unite more to oust the intruders who first arrived to end the 1975-1990 Lebanon civil war but have stayed far too long in the name of creating "greater Syria."

Syria's basic problem is that its regime is dominated by a small ethnic minority (the Alawites) who fear domestic opponents and tout a worthless Baathist ideology similar to Saddam Hussein's. The regime tries to claim pan-Arab leadership by acting as a truckstop for anti-Israel bombers. It's trapped by old Mideast habits and, as much as the US tries to coax it toward reform, it keeps falling back.

Hopes that Syria might start to sing a new tune were high after its dictator Hafez Assad died in 2000. But his son, Bashar Assad, appears to be either cut from the same cloth or at the least unable to stand up to powerful generals.

The US withdrawal of its ambassador to Damascus after the Hariri killing is a sign that the Bush administration may have given up hope on Bashar Assad. He's been unable or unwilling to keep Iraqi insurgents from using Syria as a base. But the US must be cautious in escalating tensions at a time when it's tied down in Iraq and needs to deal with the greater threat of Iran's nuclear program.

Creating a terrorist-free Middle East doesn't always mean upping the confrontations. With peace breaking out between Israel and the Palestinians, Syria may decide to renew talks with Israel.

Helping Syria out of its self-made web of woe must be done carefully.

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