All eyes turned to Syria following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Opposition groups in Lebanon, as well as Hariri supporters, openly accused Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime of being responsible for the killing. The Bush administration, while not formally blaming Syria, virtually did so and recalled its ambassador to Damascus. The US is said to be extremely angry at Syria’s refusal to withdraw its forces from Lebanon in line with a United Nations resolution.
Growing opposition to Syrian hegemony in Lebanon is but one of four related problems Syria faces, all of which it has addressed inadequately. The other three are Syria’s behavior in Iraq, its relations with the US, and the need for domestic reform. While corrosive immobility is a trademark of the Syrian regime, these challenges threaten to reinforce each other and marginalize Syria internationally even more so than today.
In Lebanon, the Syrians have repeatedly misread the Bush administration’s intentions. Last September, the US, together with France, sponsored UN Security Council Resolution 1559 demanding a Syrian pullout and the disarming of militias – mainly Hezbollah. This came after Assad last September imposed an unconstitutional extension of Lebanese President Emile Lahoud’s mandate, despite French and American warnings. Yet to this day, Syrian officials privately say that they don’t think the US is serious about a withdrawal.
Syria’s leaders also continue to dismiss demands from within Lebanon for an end to Syria’s 28-year military presence. Such demands escalated dramatically after Hariri’s death, as tens of thousands of the former prime minister’s partisans, who previously sat on the fence when it came to Syria, shouted “Syria out.”