Dennis Ross

Despite a ban on public demonstrations, 25,000 people took to the streets on Monday in Beirut chanting “Syria out,” and triggering the resignation of the pro-Syrian prime minister and his government. Since Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister, was assassinated Feb. 14, the Lebanese people have found their collective voice and lost their fear of the Syrians. Whether the Syrian leadership or those in Lebanon who rely on Syrian dominance bear responsibility for Hariri’s assassination, it is clear that whoever did it miscalculated the consequences. They wanted to intimidate other Lebanese leaders by signalling they, too, would die if they promoted Security Council resolution 1559 — and its implicit call for withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon. But they have produced the opposite effect.

Lebanese across the political and ethnic spectrum have united in protest against Syrian occupation, and they know they are not alone in the region. Al Jazeera, the Arabic-language broadcaster, has reported polls suggesting that 77 percent of Arabs believe the Syrians were behind the assassination and should withdraw from Lebanon.

Something significant is happening within Lebanon that has implications not just for Syria but also for authoritarian regimes throughout the Middle East. When people lose their fear of such regimes, these regimes have very little to sustain them. Some say that Iraq’s elections inspired the Lebanese. But it is also Palestinian polls and the paradox, as Arab commentators observe, that only where there is external occupation are Arab peoples gaining a voice in shaping their future. Empowerment is taking place elsewhere, and there is little doubt that the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine appears to have had a profound effect on the psychology of the Lebanese as well. Ukrainians captured the world’s imagination not with violence but with their collective stand against the authorities. The Lebanese, having also lost their fear, are now making their own statement.

The Syrian regime and its dependents believe they must hold power and wealth or they will lose everything. But their options in Lebanon are clearly not attractive. A massive crackdown that results in the killing of demonstrators will bring the world’s wrath upon Syria, making isolation and collective sanctions likely. The use of Hizbullah to try to foment internal tensions or even divert attention by triggering a crisis with the Israelis would reveal the Lebanon-based militia group as serving foreign, not Lebanese, interests. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is already offering a partial withdrawal. If he thinks it will help, he may also sacrifice Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, who was Hariri’s nemesis. Perhaps that will work, especially if the Lebanese become convinced that sectarian violence might yet flare up. But having been repressed for so long, the Lebanese public may insist on nothing less than complete Syrian withdrawal.

The future of the Middle East may now be played out on the streets of Beirut even more than it is in Baghdad. If the Lebanese succeed, which Middle Eastern leader will sleep easily knowing that his people are no longer afraid? Indeed will we soon see Arab leaders embracing reforms for real? — The Christian Science Monitor