Syria's Opportunity in Lebanon

The big prize in Lebanon's struggle for democracy could actually be a little-expected shocker for the Middle East: a free and democratic Syria.

Step by step, Syria's dark hand is being lifted from Lebanon after it was implicated in the Feb. 14 assassination of Lebanon's popular former prime minister, Rafik Hariri. Its troops are due to finally withdraw by Saturday, two top pro-Syrian security officials stepped aside last week, the UN has been allowed to probe the Hariri killing, and the interim Lebanese prime minister plans to hold national elections May 29.

On the surface, that's all heartening. If anti-Syria political forces take power, Syrian dictator Bashar Assad could be shamed enough after being forced to end his country's 29-year lucrative hold on Lebanon that he will allow more dissent at home against the 35-year rule of his minority Alawite clan.

That's a hopeful view of Mr. Assad, whose promises of political reform since taking over from his late, more autocratic father in 2000 haven't amounted to beans. He could try to find a political balance between competing religious and ethnic groups, as Iraq is doing now, and move toward democracy. But he then risks creating a powerful opposition, mainly among the dominant Sunnis, that could lead to his downfall.

Assad has hinted he'll use a June meeting of his Baath Party to announce economic and political reforms. These could bring multiparty, even free elections. But rumors of reform have been floated in the past and come to naught. Syrian leaders have a habit of doing just enough to keep their opponents somewhat hopeful, then later doing nothing at all in order to survive.

A key indicator for a "Damascus spring" is how much Syria actually removes its influence from Lebanon. Its proxies who remain in the Lebanese government, starting with the president, may be fulfilling just enough demands to keep anti-Syrian protesters from returning to the streets. Syria could use its remaining hidden political clout to play for time, doctor the election, or take other blocking action. Syria doesn't want Lebanon to be so free that it removes the Hizbullah militia that is Syria's biggest bargaining chip with Israel.

On the other hand, Syria can't afford to stay alienated from the West. It's expected to be a net oil importer in a few years, forcing it to seek stronger trade ties in order to prop up the economy and Assad's rule.

The May 29 election could well be Syria's test on whether it will join the region's recent moves toward bringing all Arabs into the democratic age.

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