In the wake of the shocking assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, White House press secretary Scott McClellan fielded the following question on Tuesday: "The President has spoken repeatedly about an 'axis of evil.' With Syria's suspected increased involvement in terrorist activities, are we now looking at a 'quadrangle of evil'?"
In typically opaque McClellanite fashion, the press secretary responded thus: "I think you're looking at exactly what I said yesterday and exactly what I said today. And I think that's how you should look at it." Well, that certainly explains things.
To be fair to McClellan and the Bush administration, though, the question of what to do about Syria -- specifically, whether or not the vaunted axis of evil runs through Damascus -- is an incredibly delicate one (the term "quadrangle" is technically inappropriate, since Iraq, on its way to freedom and full sovereignty, has effectively been removed from the list; Pyonyang and Tehran have swiftly filled the vacuum left by Baghdad).
But after last Monday's assassination, an effective approach to dealing with "Friendly Syria" -- as the Lebanese client regime refers to its neighboring patron -- is slowly coming into focus.
To recap: on Monday, a giant explosion wracked Beirut's Mediterranean coast, killing 14 people, including the former prime minister. Hariri had resigned his post in order to catalyze opposition to the Syrian presence in Lebanon.
The country, which emerged in the early 1990's from a brutal 15-year civil war, is divided along religious lines between Shiite Muslims, Sunni Muslims, Druze (an Arab people practicing an esoteric faith that spun off from Islam around the 10th century), composing around 70% of the population, and Christians (including Maronites -- a Catholic offshoot -- and Greek Orthodox), who make up around 25%. These numbers are tentative: due to the sensitive confessional balance in Lebanon, the government has demurred from carrying out a census.
The 1989 Ta'if Accord, which formally ended the civil war, calls for fixed representation of each group in the government, regardless of changes in demographics. The accord, despite calling for the departure of all foreign troops, effectively ratified an enduring Syrian presence to ensure "regional stability."
Hariri, a Sunni businessman, philanthropist, and sponsor of an international academic fellowship program for Lebanese youth, resigned the prime ministership after Syria pressured Lebanon to skirt its constitution to allow Damascus's proxy, President Emile Lahoud, to extend his term in office. Recently, Hariri had made common cause with a Druze party that has been seeking the ouster of Syrian troops. His slaying threatened to reignite interconfessional tensions that had been reduced to a simmer for many years.
So what can (and should) the U.S. do about this situation? How can we help Lebanon achieve sovereignty? More importantly, how can we bring about change in the repressive Syrian regime of Bashar Assad?
First, we must recognize that the road to change in Damascus runs through Beirut. Until Syria encounters genuine opposition to its presence in Lebanon, Assad will continue to believe that neither the U.S. nor the international community will challenge his curtailment of human rights at home or his adventures in sponsoring jihad abroad.
In addition, ending the Syrian occupation would deprive the terror group Hezbollah of significant material and logistical support. While the Shiite group has begun to transform itself into a successful Lebanese political party, cutting its lifeline to Damascus and Tehran would significantly degrade Hezbollah's military capabilities and undermine its irredentist approach to destroying Israel. Fortunately, the White House and the State Department have recognized this connection, repeatedly describing Syria's influence in Lebanon as destabilizing.
The recent events may spur this development. Although no smoking gun evidence has yet emerged of Syrian connivance in the assassination, at the very least Damascus -- which possesses overwhelming security and intelligence control over Lebanon -- was negligent in allowing it to happen.
Perhaps the sheer awfulness of Hariri's assassination will serve as a crystallizing moment capable of galvanizing a Lebanese movement for true democracy and independence, much as the fraudulent first-round Ukrainian elections sparked the Orange Revolution, and much as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's outright rejection of democracy begat greater than 60% voter turnout in Iraq's election.
This seems to be happening across Lebanon. Chants of "Syria out!" have accompanied the ululations of Hariri's mourners and many Sunni and Druze politicians have announced their intentions to redouble efforts to oust the Syrians. One Druze leader referred to the Lebanese government as "backed by the Syrians" and a "regime of terrorists and terrorism that was able yesterday to wipe out Rafik al-Hariri." An American blogger residing in Damascus has already concluded that the jig is up for Syria and others have joined the chorus. The U.S. should bolster the efforts of freedom-loving Lebanese not only because it is the right thing to do -- or because it may help us rebuild our relationship with the French, who also want the Syrians out -- but also because of its possible ramifications for Syria.
Second, the U.S. must continue to apply diplomatic pressure to Assad. On Tuesday, Washington recalled its ambassador to Damascus as a reflection of our "deep concern" and "profound outrage" over the bombing. The U.S. also sponsored a resolution at the UN Security Council deploring the bombing and asking the Secretary-General to investigate. This followed two resolutions in 2004 in which the Council called on all foreign armies to quit Lebanon forthwith.
The U.S. has backed this diplomatic tack with increasingly tough sanctions. In 2003, President Bush signed the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act and is reportedly mulling, under provisions of the Patriot Act, taking action against American companies engaging in financial transactions with Syrian counterparts. In the words of Martin Indyk, who served as the American ambassador to Israel and in the State Department under President Clinton, "Syria is low-hanging fruit compared to Iran."
As Syria continues its sometimes tacit, sometimes open sponsorship of terror attacks against Israel, as well as its reported incubation of Baathist insurgents preying on civilians and American troops in Iraq, we must send a strong signal that neither the United States nor the Security Council will tolerate Damascus's behavior.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, we must aggressively court and support Syrian dissidents attempting to build civil society in opposition to the Assad regime. Several pundits have pressed the case for bolstering Iranian human rights activists as the best mechanism for effecting regime change. They bemoan the embarrassingly small amount of money we bestow on these groups when every additional dollar could make an enormous difference.
The same logic applies to Syria. Bashar Assad appears to lack the killer instinct that marked his father's reign, as evidenced most clearly in the elder Assad's famous massacre of over 20,000 people in the city of Hama. Young Assad has even undertaken superficial economic and political reforms. But like his father, he is a member of the hated Alawite religious minority in a Sunni majority country. If the U.S. can exploit any of these weaknesses, Bashar's regime could well prove to be low-hanging fruit.
But sadly, American support for the Syrian opposition is as meager as aid to Iranian dissidents. The National Endowment for Democracy doesn't even list Syria as a grant recipient. In 2004 Congress balked at the meager $1.5 million authorized by the House to aid dissident groups in Syria and Iran combined. It is impossible to energize resistance to Assad's regime without investing in dissident groups.
To be sure, we would need to walk a tightrope in engaging opposition organizations within the four corners of the sanctions regime. We would also need to provide aid discreetly so as not to taint its recipients as American lackeys. But a properly executed scheme of support for Syrian human rights activists could pay huge dividends.
Bringing about reform in Syria may unlock the Iranian puzzle as well. Just as Damascus and Tehran appear to be hunkering down together in the face of global outrage over the assassination, so too could opening up Syrian society loosen the Mullahs' grip on power.
Thus, there exist serious, plausible options for bringing about regime change in Damascus, short of military engagement. None of these suggestions is easy and neither do they guarantee success. But taken together, they're a pretty good start.
Michael M. Rosen, a TCS contributor, is an attorney in San Diego.