A popular uprising against Syria's occupation of Lebanon felled the pro-Syrian government in Beirut this week, less than a month after the killing of Lebanon's most popular politician.
For the Middle East, this is the latest bloom of liberty that began in 2003 with Iraqis cheering the downing of the Hussein statue in Baghdad's Firdaus Square. For Syria, its reaction to this setback in Lebanon remains in sharp contrast to the way it's handled rebellions in the past. In 1982, for instance, it wiped out the entire Syrian city of Hama - nearly 10,000 people - after an uprising there. Now it appears to be in retreat.
The world has changed in 23 years. Syria, like other Middle Eastern dictatorships, is boxed in by democratic trends that began in the 1980s with the growth of freedom and democracy in Asia, Latin America, and the former Soviet empire. The "cedar rebellion" in Lebanon puts that trend squarely on Damascus's doorstep.
Now what? Syria still needs to withdraw its 14,000 troops and thousands of spies from Lebanon, and let that country sort out its own future. It needs to hand over more of the insurgency-backing Iraqis who use its soil for attacks in Iraq. It needs to oust bomb-plotting Palestinian groups and block the flow of arms and money from Iran to the Hizbullah guerrillas attacking Israel from Lebanon.
Then, as Egypt and Saudi Arabia have done in recent weeks, Syria must take steps toward democracy, the kind that can channel political dissent and boost an economy that now lives off Lebanon's.
Syrian President Bashar Assad, however, may be simply dodging for cover. Last month, he formed a strategic alliance with Iran, another Middle Eastern nation that's ruthlessly suppressed popular dissent.
This axis of autocracy is receiving more attention from the Bush administration, which is trying everything short of war to make Syria and Iran join the democracy train and denounce terrorism. So far, the US is using diplomatic and economic incentives without much success. But it's gained some support in Europe and elsewhere, however, for its once-disdained cause of pushing democracy onto countries that seemed hopelessly far from accepting it.
Any possible US misstep in altering Syria's course could bring this progress to a halt. But as Lebanese have shown, the people of the Middle East really do want freedom - now.