Syria Later

Developments in Lebanon are encouraging for democratic progress in the Middle East

In recent weeks, tens of thousands of peaceful Lebanese demonstrators have taken to the streets in and around central Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square, calling for the withdrawal of long-time Syrian occupiers. In scenes eerily reminiscent of Ukraine this past fall, ordinary citizens stopped going to work and took part in this impressive campaign of demonstrations. Brandishing Lebanese flags, singing the national anthem, and camping in the streets night and day to ensure that their demands are met, these patriots have achieved a heartening and unique accomplishment that brings much hope for the entire region.

Breathtakingly, for the first time in the Middle East’s modern history, these peaceful protestors seem to have been successful. Their demands for political change were not met with fists, kicks, batons, tear gas, riot police, or bullets but instead with definite success and governmental responsiveness. In a region that has for so long stymied the voice of its people and crushed their aspirations, thousands of Lebanese demonstrators have been given new hope. Without any violence, they have overthrown a government and compelled dictatorial Syria to agree to begin a withdrawal that it has delayed for well over a decade—quite substantial achievements for less than a month’s action.

The past several weeks of extraordinary activity culminated in Monday’s announcement that Syria would withdraw its troops in a two-stage process starting immediately. Syrian troops appear so far to be honoring the agreement and are now in the process of pulling back to the Bekaa valley in Eastern Lebanon where they will await another accord that will delineate their final withdrawal. Hopefully negotiations will begin soon after the March 31 deadline that Syria has laid out for relocation of its troops to the valley, and will be successful in ridding Lebanon of its occupiers.

However, it should be noted that Syria has thus far been completely silent on the removal of its many intelligence agents and secret service operatives. This is profoundly unsettling. The agents of Syria’s intelligence apparatus can do even more than traditional ground troops to instill fear among the Lebanese populace, and the coalition of the United States, France, Egypt, and Russia is right to insist on their complete withdrawal. So long as Syrian agents remain in force in Lebanon, able to intimidate and spy on voters, the country cannot truly be free; thus Syria’s commitment to finally ending its interference in its neighbor’s affairs remains suspect.

We agree that the Bush administration’s skepticism of Syria’s seemingly sudden change in heart is warranted, as that country has proved quite adept at doing just enough to prevent punitive action without substantially changing the situation on the ground. Yesterday’s pro-Syria, Hezbollah-led protests are nothing if not a sign of Syria’s enduring grip on its smaller neighbor. Nevertheless, it is hard not to be encouraged by the developments so far in Lebanon. The fact that popular protests alone, and not the threat of Western-sponsored sanctions, compelled a change in Syrian government policy is a sure sign that change is beginning to be felt in the greater Middle East.

It should not be forgotten that Iraq recently held elections, Egypt for the first time will have competitive elections for president, and even Saudi Arabia will elect regional governments. While the events are not necessarily directly linked together, they do suggest an encouraging, and accelerating, trend towards freedom in the region.

The path of political reform and democratization in the Middle East, and even its final result, is still quite uncertain. One thing, though, is clear: a portion of the Arab street that for so long has been silent has been awakened. The shameful status quo that for so long has smothered the Arab world and the aspirations of its people is now being challenged in a way few imagined possible. It is premature to declare any sort of “victory,” and the Bush administration has rightfully been wary of premature optimism. Middle Eastern regimes have a unique and regrettable talent for surviving in power, and it is not impossible that they will ride out this wave of popular discontent and mobilization. We do, however, think that those brave souls in Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square are right when they chant that the “time is up” for unresponsive strongmen such as Bashar al-Assad.