Standing up to bullies in Lebanon

Think of Lebanon as the neighborhood sandbox for the Middle East. Countries go there to play, but often not by the rules. It can get so crowded and nasty that there's little place or peace for Lebanese themselves. The country and region then suffer for it.

This has been a banner year for outside interference in Lebanon, a weak democracy that threw off Syrian occupation in the peaceful "Cedar Revolution" of 2005.

Last week, a Lebanese cabinet minister was assassinated in Beirut – one of a half-dozen anti-Syrian figures to be killed in two years. Syria's hand in the killing is strongly suspected, but Damascus denies a role. Now the world has learned that Hizbullah – the Lebanese political and terrorist group aided by sandbox bullies Iran and Syria – has been training Iraqi militia. Facilitation courtesy of Iran.

Still on the minds of Lebanese is this summer's war with Israel, which launched a devastating bombing campaign after it was attacked by Hizbullah. US support for Israel's prolonged bombing sullied its reputation as a more benign player in Beirut.

For Lebanon to thrive as a peaceful democracy and an influence for good in the region, it must continue its "Cedar Revolution" – its drive toward independence from harmful, outside interference.

One way it can do this is by moving forward with a UN tribunal to try suspects in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. His killing sparked the street protests that forced Syria to pull its military out of Lebanon, originally deployed to keep peace after Lebanon's 15-year civil war.

The tribunal is an existential issue for Syria – and by extension, for Hizbullah and other Syria supporters in Lebanon. A preliminary UN investigation into Hariri's killing has implicated Syrian and Lebanese security officials, including Syria's military intelligence chief, who is the brother-in-law of Syria's president.

As proven by the "Cedar Revolution," most Lebanese want real independence, and the tribunal would help achieve that. Its impartiality is strengthened by its structure: A majority of judges would be non-Lebanese and suspects would be tried outside the country. Uncovering the killers, one hopes, would break the cycle of political assassinations, so that Lebanon can deal with the business of governing.

Hizbullah and other Syria backers, including Lebanon's president, say they're in favor of the tribunal. But their actions show otherwise. In a power play, six Hizbullah and allied ministers recently resigned from the cabinet just before it approved the UN tribunal. Now the pro-Syrians say the cabinet's approval is unconstitutional, for lack of certain ministers. Hizbullah is calling for street protests to bring down the government. Civil war threatens.

That the UN Security Council unanimously supported the tribunal last week shows what it thinks of the "it's not constitutional" complaint.

Big strategic changes are being considered in the Middle East these days, from US discussions with Syria and Iran to another push for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement.

Such developments could benefit Lebanon, but why wait? There is one step Lebanon can take now to help itself. The whole country can get behind the tribunal, and it should.

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