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ISSUE 118 VOL 15 PUBLISHED 4/8/2005

Seriously discussing Syria: Lebanese people may finally get free, fair elections

By Byron Vierk
Staff Writer

Friday, April 8, 2005

Something extraordinary is happening in the Middle East. The authoritarian regimes which have oppressed their populations for decades are finally beginning to crumble. From Riyadh to Cairo, cries for autonomy and democracy are beginning to gain volume, nowhere more markedly than in the Mediterranean nation of Lebanon.

After nearly 30 years of Syrian occupation, the people of Lebanon have taken to the streets to demand free and fair elections. Those Lebanese who yearn to be free have powerful enemies, both within and outside their borders, yet their country’s very act of defiance has sent shockwaves throughout the region and has given new hope to an oppressed people.

Syria initially became involved with Lebanon during the Lebanese Civil War in 1976 with a force of 30,000 troops. Today, 14,000 Syrian troops remain in Lebanon to provide “stability” – an occupation that Syria considers completely natural. Syrian governments have repeatedly justified their meddling in Lebanese affairs through the assertion that Lebanon is simply part of “greater Syria.”

Unfortunately for Syria, this is the kind of Hitler-esque “lebensraum” argument that should never (and rarely does) hold water today. Initially, the Lebanese welcomed the stability that the Syrian troops provided during the Civil War as well as Lebanon’s short wars with Israel.

However, since the early 1990s, there has been a growing movement of resentment over Syria’s influence in Lebanese self-determination. With the assassination of anti-Syrian opposition leader Rafik Hariri, a man whose murder most Lebanese blame on Syrian agents, Lebanon’s growing resentment has erupted into all-out dissent.

The protester’s cries for freedom have not fallen on deaf ears. The United Nations has called for the immediate withdrawal of all Syrian troops from Lebanon, while the United States and France have officially imposed sanctions.

Nearly one million people gathered at an opposition rally in Beirut on March 28, lending hope that these sanctions and resolutions might convince Syria to back off.

Unfortunately for Lebanon, I fear that the greatest threat to its autonomy comes not from Damascus, but from a pro-Syrian organization that the United States has classified as a terrorist group (but which most Lebanese feel still helps guarantee their defense against Israel): Hezbollah.

Hezbollah is perhaps the saddest example of an organization abandoning pretense and dirtying its already muddy hands in recent history. The organization won the respect of most Lebanese by driving the Israelis out of Golan Heights, even gaining major influence in the Lebanese Parliament.

Despite its national heroism, Hezbollah must now unabashedly be called not only a terrorist organization, but also an anti-Lebanese organization. Hezbollah, backed by Iran and Syria, once sought to do away with Lebanese religious freedoms and form an Iranian-style Muslim state. Once the attempt failed, it switched strategies to simple sedition.

Hezbollah showed its true colors last week during its own pro-Syria protest in Beirut, where demonstrators waved pictures of the Syrian president and chanted pro-Syria slogans.

Add on Hezbollah's practice of kidnapping Westerners (and its rampant xenophobia) and Hezbollah's repeated claims to be a pro-Lebanese force completely lose credibility. One begins to wonder whose side Hezbollah can be on if it can’t even be on the side of its own people.

The good news arising from all this is that Hezbollah and Syria, despite their great power and influence in the region, are losing in Lebanon. While military intervention is decidedly unlikely, this is not the time for the United States or the world to lose focus on the political battle being waged on the streets of Lebanon. Driving Syrian forces from Lebanon not only creates another democratic, free and autonomous Muslim state, it gives a bit of hope to a region waiting for the dam of freedom to break.

Staff writer Byron Vierk is a senior from Lincoln, Neb. He majors in English and history.

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