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The Road to Damascus By: Charles Krauthammer
Washington Post | Tuesday, March 08, 2005


Revolutions do not stand still.  They either move forward or die. We are at the dawn of a glorious,  delicate,  revolutionary moment in the  Middle East . It was triggered by the invasion of Iraq,  the overthrow  of Saddam Hussein  and televised images  of 8 million Iraqis  voting in a  free election. Which led to the obvious question  throughout the Middle East:  Why the Iraqis and not us?

To be sure,  the rolling revolution  began outside the Middle East  with the Afghan elections. That was followed  by the Iraqi elections. In  between came free Palestinian elections  that produced a moderate,   reform-oriented leadership,  followed by an amazing mini-uprising  in  the Palestinian parliament  that rejected an attempt to force corrupt  cronies  on the new government.

And it continued  - demonstrations in Egypt for democracy,  a shocking  rarity that led President Hosni Mubarak to promise  the first contested  presidential elections in Egyptian history.  And now,  of course,  the  "cedar revolution" in Lebanon,  where the assassination of opposition  leader Rafiq Hariri  led to an explosion of people power in the streets  that brought down Syria's puppet-government in Beirut.

Revolution is in the air.  What to do?  We are already hearing voices  for restraint about liberating Lebanon.  Flynt Leverett,  your usual  Middle East expert,  took to the New York Times  to oppose the immediate  end of Syria's occupation of Lebanon. Instead,  we should be trying  to "engage and  empower" the tyranny in Damascus.

These people never learn.  Here we are  on the threshold  of what Arabs  in the region are calling  the fall of their own Berlin Wall  and our  "realists" want us to go back to making deals with dictators.  It would  be  not just a blunder but a tragedy.  It would betray our principles.  And it would betray the people in Lebanon  who have been encouraged  by those principles.

Moreover,   the cedar revolution  promises not only to liberate Lebanon  but to transform the Middle East.  Why?  Because a forced Syrian  withdrawal from Lebanon  could bring down the Assad dictatorship. And  changing Damascus  would transform the region.
We are not talking  about invading Syria. We have done enough invading  and there is no need.  If Bashar Assad loses Lebanon,  his regime could  be fatally weakened.

This is for two reasons:  economics and psychology.  Like all Soviet- style systems,  the Syrian economy is moribund.  It lives off Lebanese  commerce and corruption. Take that away and a pillar of the Assad  kleptocracy disappears.  As does the psychological pillar.  Dictatorships such as Assad's  rule by fear,  which is sustained by  power  and the illusion of power.  Control of Lebanon is the centerpiece  of that illusion.  Its loss,  at the hands of unarmed civilians no less,   would be a deadly blow to the Assad mystique.

Bashar Assad has succeeded Saddam Hussein  as the principal [weak] bad actor  in the region. Syria,  an island of dictatorship  in a sea of  liberalization,  is desperately trying  to destabilize its neighbors.  The Hariri bombing  is universally believed  to be the work of Syria.  The orders  for last Friday's Tel Aviv bombing,  designed to blow up the new Palestinian-Israeli rapprochement,  came from Damascus.  And we know  that Syria is sheltering leading Baathist insurgents  who are killing  Iraqis and Americans.

There was a brief Damascus Spring  five years ago  when Syrians began  demanding more freedom. Assad repressed it.  Now 140 Syrian  intellectuals  have petitioned their own government to withdraw from  Lebanon.  They signed their names. The fear is lifting there,  too. Were  the contagion to spread to Damascus,  the entire region from the  Mediterranean Sea  to the Iranian border  would be on a path to  democratization.

This could all be reversed,  of course. Liberal revolutions were  suppressed in Europe in 1848,  Hungary in 1956,  Czechoslovakia in 1968  and Tiananmen Square in 1989. Determined and ruthless regimes  can extinguish revolutions. Which is why the worst thing we can do  is "engage and empower"  tyrants.

This is no time to listen  to the voices of tremulousness,  indecision,   compromise and fear.  If we had listened to them  two years ago,  we  would still be doing oil for food,  no-fly zones  and worthless  embargoes.  It is our principles  that brought us  to this moment by way  of Afghanistan and Iraq. They need to guide us now - through Beirut  to Damascus.



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