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The Devil We Know in Lebanon

February 16, 2005

If Syria was involved in any way in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, it was a remarkably stupid move. The car bombing that killed Hariri and at least nine others on Monday has boosted support for Lebanese political groups opposed to Syria's influence over the country and increased international pressure for Syria to withdraw its 16,000 troops from the country. France and the United States, which seldom agree on Middle East policy, have found common ground over Syria, with both sharpening their rhetorical darts aimed at Damascus in the wake of the attack.

Whether Syria actually had anything to do with the killing matters less than the fact that it will be widely blamed for it. In the hundreds of car bombings over the course of a brutal civil war lasting from 1975 to 1990, few of the perpetrators were ever caught. That means we may never know who packed the explosives in Monday's murder. That may suit France and the U.S. just fine, because it keeps the pressure on Syria.

A veiled United Nations resolution spearheaded by France and the United States essentially called for Syria to withdraw last September, to no avail. If the Security Council now turns up the heat, it needs to be mindful of the possible threat of a power vacuum in a notoriously volatile region.

Syria sent its troops to Lebanon in 1976 in an effort to quell a murderous conflict among Lebanon's complex array of religious and ethnic groups. In 1989, with the help of Saudi Arabia and Hariri, an accord was reached that helped end the conflict while leaving Lebanon largely under Syrian control.

Lebanon has not exactly been Switzerland since then. The Hezbollah militia, with the backing of Syria, has used the country as a base to launch terrorist attacks, one of the main reasons the U.S. has been targeting Damascus. Yet compared with the bloody horrors of the civil war period, today's Lebanon is almost an Eden, with Beirut's waterfront transforming from a bullet-riddled shell to a tony business and tourist enclave.

Much of the credit for that, of course, belongs to Hariri. It would be hard to pick a more powerful symbolic target than the billionaire who helped negotiate Lebanon's key peace accord, led the country for 10 years as prime minister and personally oversaw the reconstruction of Beirut's city center. But Syria, for all its repressiveness and propensity for mischief, also has to be given a share of the credit for providing the security that made Hariri's reconstruction possible.

Lebanon today has the veneer of peacefulness, but many of the same elements that tore the country apart 30 years ago are still present, and about 10% of its present population is made up of Palestinian refugees. Syria's eventual withdrawal may be inevitable, but it will be an occasion fraught with danger. In this part of the world, you really have to be careful what you wish for.

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