THE MEANING OF LEBANON

They quarreled with Rafiq Hariri's way of rebuilding Beirut, dismissing his renewal project as an assault on the capital's archaeological heritage and the graceful old city of fabled memory. They wrote off his ambitious economic policy, pointing to the vast public debt that accumulated under his stewardship. Many Lebanese saw Hariri as Saudi Arabia's man, never quite taking to the swashbuckling way he climbed to the heights of power. But on February 14, when the former prime minister was struck down by a huge bomb that shattered his motorcade as it passed near Beirut's swank hotels and sea front -- in the very district his construction company had remade from rubble -- Lebanon had its first "martyr" in many years.

Hariri had not been a vocal opponent of Syria, but the opposition now claimed him as its own. He had risen through the subtle workings of politics and power, but "the street" now belonged to him. A Sunni Muslim, he had never bonded entirely with the Christians of East Beirut and Mount Lebanon, but he now became public property, a symbol of national unity. If Hariri's assassins sought to make an example of him for his growing defiance of Syrian power, the aftermath of the crime mocked them. A country forgotten and consigned to the captivity of its eastern neighbor shook off its fear and reticence. For the span of a generation, Lebanon was merely an appendage of Syrian power: for all practical purposes, the small republic left the world of independent nations. But now the Lebanese were clamoring for a return to normalcy, calling their spontaneous eruption the "independence intifada."

Lebanon, with a distinctive history and character, was not, after all, a part of "Greater Syria"; it would not be written off as a strategic consolation prize for a regime locked into an increasingly uneven standoff with Israel. It had taken a quarter century of guile for the late Syrian dictator Hafiz al-Assad to consolidate his power over Lebanon (although Syria's occupation officially dates from 1990). He did it, alternately, by stealth and brutality. There was no blitzkrieg like Saddam Hussein's conquest of Kuwait; the trappings of Lebanese sovereignty were kept but were emptied of content. But now, in one brazen act of terror, the Syrian presence in Lebanon would become a concern of the world.

It is safe to assume that no inquiry will establish with certainty if the Syrians were responsible for the deed. It is likely that the trail to Damascus will never be found. Access to the "crime scene" -- Lebanon itself -- has been limited, and Syria's regime of satraps in Beirut has done its best to hamper a thorough investigation of the crime. But the Lebanese opposition has no doubt as to the identity of the assailants, and is taking matters into its own hands.

SHIFTING GROUND

If the outrage within Lebanon broke through the old taboos of the Syrian-Lebanese relationship, the international setting has been dramatically transformed as well. France and the United States feuded over Iraq; Syria's occupation of Lebanon has provided them with an opportunity for common purpose. Assad's inexperienced heir, his son Bashar, is now caught in an international storm destined to be the test of his regime.

In 1990-91, in the context of a radically different international order, the world averted its gaze as Syria destroyed the last vestiges of Lebanon's independence. That was the price willingly paid by President George H.W. Bush for enlisting Damascus in the first campaign against Saddam. Those were good wages garnered by the Syrians. Syria did little for the coalition but was accepted as the gendarmerie of a volatile Lebanese polity. Then the outside world forgot about Lebanon. The missionaries, businesspeople, writers, and spooks who had known the country wandered away or aged. The dominant impression of Lebanon became that of a country given to tribal atavisms and bottomless feuds.

But more than a decade later, U.S. power positioned itself in Iraq, directly on Syria's eastern border. Pax Americana's tolerance for bargains with strongmen had substantially eroded since the September 11 attacks. True, Syria had not merited charter membership in President George W. Bush's "axis of evil." The Syrians warded off danger by "turning state's evidence" -- sharing what intelligence they had about the countless jihadists who hailed from Syria. But even as Syria tried to sit out the campaign in Iraq, it could not do so entirely. The lucrative Syrian trade of reexporting Iraqi oil in violation of international sanctions -- bringing in a windfall of some $1 billion a year -- was one casualty of this war. The other was most of Syria's leverage with the United States. Damascus had no real claims on Washington's loyalty and indulgence. The sort of access to the Pax Americana enjoyed by Cairo and Riyadh was not available to Syria's rulers. In the run-up to the Iraq war, Damascus had voted for a Security Council resolution authorizing Iraq's disarmament. But that could not buy Syria indefinite protection against the United States' wrath. Indeed, Bashar al-Assad and his cronies could be forgiven their worries that their regime could be the next target in U.S. cross hairs. The spectacle of the Iraqi dictator chased into his "spider hole" provided a cautionary tale. Hard as Damascus may have tried to maintain that Iraq was not its affair, the toppling of the Baathist tyranny next door was a crystal ball in which Syria's rulers could glimpse intimations of their own demise.

No one in the Arab world would shed tears for Assad and his political dynasty, and he and his men knew that. Theirs was a minority regime, the dominion of the Alawis, a heterodox Muslim community from Syria's northern mountains, over a principally Sunni Muslim society. Hafiz al-Assad, who established the regime, may have lacked Saddam's megalomania, but at the heart of his government was the cult of the ruler and his iron fist. In Syria as in Iraq, a generation of peasant soldiers and merciless ideologues took the society apart and trumpeted their pursuit of a new social order, only to create a system of political sterility and economic plunder.

Although Assad's regime had shut down its critics at home and had seemingly subdued Lebanon, the new security doctrine of the United States held dangers aplenty for it. Wars of pre-emption were now a distinct possibility. Washington had its hands full in Iraq, but no one in Damascus could be certain that the U.S. drive to finish off Arab dictators would come to a halt in Iraq. And there were Washington's "neocons" -- a veritable obsession of the Arab intellectual and political class, in Damascus and beyond. Who knew what they had in mind? There was unsettling talk of "low-hanging fruit" and "phase two" of the U.S. military effort. There was paranoia to spare in Arab political circles about a new American imperial bid to remake the Arab world.

As Syria's rulers hunkered down and waited to see the unfolding of the U.S. project in Iraq, they did their best to aid and abet the anti-U.S. insurgency there, while still maintaining the necessary fiction of their neutrality, doing what they could to avoid open confrontation with Washington. It was a game of cat and mouse: it was known that Arab jihadists from Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan traveled to Mosul and the Sunni Triangle from Syria. There was irony here: an Alawite regime that was at odds with Sunni Islamists at home was feeding a Sunni insurgency next door. The jihadists dreaded the Syrian regime as a "godless tyranny" but took its favors. The 400-mile border was porous, and the Syrians had no interest in securing it. There were loyalists of the decapitated Iraqi regime with money to spare; they were looking for sanctuary, and the Syrians would provide it.

It was important for Syria that this heady U.S. bid to change the politics of the Arab states be thwarted. The more blood and treasure the United States expended in Iraq, the safer it was for Damascus. The new U.S. reach into the Arab world was a transient affair, the Syrians hoped. In time, Washington would grow weary of its burdens and pack up the military gear, along with U.S. designs for the region and its people. In the interim, Syria would punctuate its steady undermining of the U.S. operation with small favors and concessions to the U.S. military authorities. The Syrians could also plead that sealing the Syrian-Iraqi border was beyond their power and that they lacked the means and technology to monitor the age-old traffic on their frontier.

The Bush administration had announced nothing less than the obsolescence of the Arab world's old authoritarian order. The brittle system in Damascus was in a fight to keep intact its old ways of control. Gone was the steady hand of the old juggler, Hafiz al-Assad. Gone, too, made obsolete by the rise of George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, was the tortured U.S. diplomacy, that fabled "peace process," that had courted Damascus and catered to its sense of importance as a big player in the Fertile Crescent. When he was Israel's prime minister, Ehud Barak had contemplated a deal with Damascus in preference to a settlement with the Palestinians. The Syrians had held back and were left on the sidelines. No one in Jerusalem or Washington was waiting on Syria any longer. An autocratic regime had survived, but the confidence and the security it had once possessed had cracked.

A DIFFERENT WORLD

In retrospect, it was inevitable that Lebanon would provide the setting for the response of Syria to the mounting pressures it faced, that it would be in Beirut that Damascus would set out to defy the world, only to highlight the crisis of its moribund regime.

In late 2004, trouble had erupted when Syria extended the mandate of its Maronite Christian satrap in Beirut, President Emile Lahoud. He had served out his six-year term, and Lebanon's constitution decreed the end of his tenure. Lahoud's had not been a happy stewardship. The country had begun to bristle under Syrian control, and the former military officer was Syria's man -- nothing more. Lahoud was even at odds with the mainstream members of his own Maronite community, who have traditionally been devoted to the ancestral independence of their country. Over time, the Syrian embrace had grown suffocating. Syrian agents were trampling on internal matters such as naturalization policies and an education system of which Lebanon had long been proud. The machinery of extortion had become particularly burdensome, as the Syrians helped themselves to what could be had in Lebanon. It had become increasingly difficult to live with the humiliation.

A quiet rebellion was gathering steam. The revered Maronite patriarch, Cardinal Mar Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, launched a brave campaign for the restoration of Lebanon's sovereignty. Lebanon had always been, at its heart, a "Christian homeland." With the sanctity and protection given him by his standing in Lebanon and the Catholic world, Sfeir emerged as the standard-bearer of the country's sovereignty. Hereditary Druze leader Walid Jumblat, who had accommodated Syrian power for a quarter century, also drifted into the opposition. His father, Kamal, once a towering figure in the country's politics, had been struck down by the Syrians in 1977. The son knew that there was nothing he could do to avenge his father, but he threw caution to the wind to become a vocal opponent of Syrian hegemony.

Lebanon's identity was at stake, but the backward Syrian regime showed no signs of retreat. A military presence passed off as a counter to Israel's "security zone" in the south had taken Israel's May 2000 withdrawal in stride, as though nothing had happened. The Syrians could have left well enough alone: they could have abandoned Lahoud and chosen another proxy from the Maronite political class. But Bashar al-Assad lacked his father's touch. He was determined to get his way, if only to show that nothing had changed since Hafiz's death. Prime Minister Hariri, a bitter enemy of Lahoud, was summoned to Damascus, where he was informed that the decision to extend Lahoud's mandate had already been made. The meeting between Hariri and Assad lasted only several minutes. A man of great wealth, who had been prime minister for 10 of the preceding 12 years, was shown little respect.

Hariri knew he would be a marked man if he opted for a break with Syria. He hedged his bets, submitted his resignation, and let the word out that he was probing his political options. His government was replaced by one of quislings. The relative legitimacy that had been accorded his cabinet was denied the successor government. Syria now faced the prospect of an immensely influential Sunni Muslim, the leading figure of his community, bringing his followers -- and his substantial wealth and international standing -- into the opposition.

It was in the midst of this crisis that the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1559, sponsored by France and the United States, calling for a "free and fair electoral process in Lebanon's upcoming presidential election ... without foreign interference" and for "all remaining foreign forces to withdraw from Lebanon." The timing was telling: the Security Council vote took place on September 2 of last year; the hapless Lebanese parliament rubber-stamped Syria's extension of Lahoud's tenure a day later.

It was immensely important that Washington and Paris worked together. In the new effort to push Syria out of Lebanon, the United States was free of the burden, and the taint, of unilateralism. Europe had substantial assets to bring to the fight, if only because the U.S. economic, cultural, and political presence in Syria had been rather limited in comparison.

French diplomacy may have been "pacifist" over Iraq, but Paris still felt the tug of its imperial memory. The Mediterranean coastline and the hill country of Lebanon were once French domains. France's language and culture left their indelible mark on the people of Mount Lebanon. The traffic between France and Lebanon's Maronites goes back centuries. In 1860, Napoleon III dispatched a French expedition to Lebanon to help the Maronites after a communal war broke out between them and the Druze. French power, in 1920, created the modern republic of Lebanon, bequeathed it its favorable borders, annexing to the Maronite Mount Lebanon the coastal cities of the Mediterranean, the Bekaa Valley to the east, and the Shia hinterland to the south. And beyond old memories, personal friendship was no doubt a factor: President Jacques Chirac was a close friend of Hariri's for years. The Syrian rulers, generally given to a healthy dose of paranoia, were convinced that Hariri had played a big role in drafting Resolution 1559 and that French diplomacy, in turn, had stiffened U.S. resolve against Syria.

But even before Hariri's tragic death reawakened interest in Lebanon's fate, Syria's occupation was being called into question. In his State of the Union address on February 2, 2005, President Bush announced a departure from the old U.S. reticence: "Syria still allows its territory, and parts of Lebanon, to be used by terrorists who seek to destroy every chance of peace in the region. You have passed, and we are applying, the Syrian Accountability Act, and we expect the Syrian government to end all support for terror, and open the door to freedom." The Syrian Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act, a congressional initiative of 2003, had given the president broad authority to impose a range of economic sanctions and restrictions on Syria. The White House had initially treated the initiative with some reserve, and so its embrace by Bush signaled a change in official policy.

In the aftermath of Hariri's assassination, Bush upped the ante: Syrian armed forces had to quit Lebanon and take with them their intelligence operatives. There was no small irony in this twist of history: fifteen years earlier, George H.W. Bush and Hafiz al-Assad had struck a deal that liquidated Lebanon's independence; now their sons were bringing that deal to an end. It was fitting that the edifice of Syrian control secured in the first campaign against Saddam was being undone in the course of the second.

Syria never fully assimilated how different the world had become after September 11. In March 2001, Cardinal Sfeir had journeyed to the United States, where he sought an audience with Bush -- in vain. This was, after all, the time of realism: no one wanted to offend Damascus or stir up the passions of Lebanese nationalism. Four years later, however, a president who had "planted the flag of liberty" in Arab lands had no choice but to take up the cause of Lebanon's independence. The war on terror came to Lebanon's rescue. If the Middle East was to be repaired, then the establishment of a legitimate system of authority in Lebanon was of paramount concern. Damascus held effective power but was not accountable; Beirut retained the trappings of sovereignty but could not deliver public order or maintain peace in its territory.

THE HEZBOLLAH EFFECT

A truly sovereign Lebanese government could have brought Hezbollah to heel. But Syria's writ made it impossible for the Lebanese army to deploy to the south, the frontier with Israel; Hezbollah lived on the indulgence granted by its status as an Islamic "resistance movement" and could ride roughshod over the authority of any incumbent government.

In truth, however, the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon robbed the militia of its raison d'être. True, a pretext was found for Hezbollah to retain its weapons: in the aftermath of the withdrawal, the group made a new claim on a small strip of land still in Israel's possession called Shebaa Farms. But the cause of Shebaa Farms is a sham, and everyone apart from the most diehard of Hezbollah operatives knows it: the underdeveloped land is actually subject to negotiations between Damascus and Jerusalem, for Syrian forces had possession of it when it fell under Israel's control in 1967. No great emotions stir in Lebanon about that largely barren territory.

Strictly speaking, Hezbollah does not need the "holy war" and is already participating in the confessional politics of Lebanon, on behalf of the poorer Shiites. The Party of God fields candidates for Lebanon's parliament, runs a television station, and funds a whole host of economic endeavors. Hitherto, U.S. diplomacy has paid Hezbollah only fitful attention. U.S. officials could turn up in Damascus, but no satisfaction could be had there. In the words of the articulate Lebanese publisher Gebran Tuéni, the Syrians ruled Lebanon by "remote control" and would never own up to their power over Hezbollah's operatives. Why would Syria clip Hezbollah's wings? The organization was Syria's trump card in Lebanon and on the border with Israel. Iran provides Hezbollah with money; Syria's gift has been protection. But the logic of the Bush administration's war on terror is one of pre-emption, of refusing to wait on gathering dangers, so Hezbollah has long been destined to be a legitimate U.S. concern.

Hezbollah's independent power should not be overestimated. A Lebanese army free to assert its authority would easily subdue it. That army would have on its side the bulk of a Shia community averse to hurling itself and its villages into another destructive war on the Lebanese-Israeli border. A viable political center revolves around the authority of the Maronite patriarch, the prestige and power of the Druze leader Jumblat, and the technocrats who were associated with Hariri, mainly Sunni Muslims who have shed their acquiescence to join the anti-Syrian coalition. The Shiites have appeared uncertain in the midst of this tumult, but they are nationalists and will not want to be left out of the making of a new political order. They will not want to end up on the side of a despised Syrian regime.

Hezbollah can bring its supporters to the street, it is true. The Party of God is full of forebodings about its future. But its public displays of "gratitude" to Syria for its presence in Lebanon cannot provide the basis of a successful political strategy. Underneath the sound and fury of Hezbollah, there are hard calculations of power. Hezbollah's leaders must have a feel for the sentiment of the Shia mainstream: it was Lebanese flags, rather than the banners of their party, that they brought to the mass rally in Beirut on March 8. There was a moment of silence at that rally for Hariri, and a message to the opposition that Hezbollah wants a share of the country's power. A vast Shia propertied class, with a tenuous hold on prosperity, has come into its own over the preceding quarter century. That Shia mainstream will give Hezbollah time but will not want to bear the stigma of supplication to Damascus. The call of home and patriotism will in the end bring the Shiites into the emerging national consensus.

The Lebanese opposition to Syria is at peace with Hezbollah's political role. What the opposition seeks is an acceptance by Hezbollah that Syrian hegemony has run its course and that a sovereign Lebanese government must have unfettered authority. The French are advocates of a "soft landing" for Hezbollah -- a transition to the political world. By the appearance of things, the Bush administration has for now come to an accommodation with that view, as it pursues the larger goal of pushing Syria out of Lebanon.

FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE

The current Syrian regime is truly alone in the world. In the Arab world itself, the isolation of Damascus is easy to see. Arab public opinion has never taken to Syria's rulers. Before the destruction of his regime, Saddam was accepted as defender of the Arabs, a son of the "Arab nation," fighting its wars and sharing its atavisms. But he was a Sunni Arab; Syria's rulers are cut of a different cloth. Perhaps their esoteric Alawite faith is, in part, a factor in their estrangement. More important, they are people of stealth who have waged their own wars against the Palestinians and cut down to size Beirut's pan-Arabists in pursuit of Syrian hegemony.

Nor can the established Arab order do much for the Syrians. Cairo will not intercede on behalf of Damascus. If the Egyptians attempt it, their intervention will come without conviction. U.S. policy owes no deference to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. If anything, the Bush administration's new emphasis on reform and liberty only highlights the inadequacy of Mubarak's own regime.

Riyadh will not intercede either, but for different reasons. Hariri held Saudi citizenship, and his ties to the House of Saud ran to the very heart of the dynasty. Hariri had brought to Beirut not only Saudi money and investments, but also the Saudi way -- an aversion to ideology, a businessman's peace, and a belief in the power of wealth and caution. The Saudis are not given to expressions of public outrage, but one of their own was struck down in Beirut. A huge contingent of Saudi princes came to Beirut for Hariri's funeral; the de facto ruler, Crown Prince Abdullah, went to the Hariri home in Riyadh to offer condolences to his two older sons. Saudi Arabia will not trumpet Syria's culpability in his death. But the reserve that Saudi Arabia has displayed toward Syrian officialdom since the murder has conveyed the House of Saud's unease. Plainly, there is no faith in Riyadh that Assad, the young Syrian ruler, knows the intricacies of power.

Lebanon has long been ignored in the Arab circles of power, but the wind now blows its way. This is a marked break with the past. In the 1970s, when Palestine was the Arabs' avowed cause, the Arab states bought time for themselves at Lebanon's expense. They bequeathed Lebanon and its sovereignty to the Palestinians; they underwrote Yasir Arafat's "state within a state." During the 1980s and 1990s, it was more of the same: the Arabs stepped clear as Syria chipped away at the remnants of Lebanon's independence and dignity. Many Lebanese are convinced that this lack of sympathy derived from the fact that Lebanon is, in the main, a Christian country with heterodox communities. There is a great deal of truth to that charge. But the Arab abdication in Lebanon springs from varied sources, including the nature of Arab politics: there was no "Arab solution" for Kuwait's troubles in 1990-91 and no Arab solution for Iraq's nightmare under Saddam. The indifference to Lebanon thus was of a piece with this larger cynical acceptance of the logic of brute force in life.

In the Arab world, there is now in the air the same reading of Syria that came to surround Saddam's regime on the eve of its destruction by the United States: a recognition that the Syrians have overplayed their hand and are now on their own. No science can predict when old ways will suddenly lose their legitimacy, and when patience with them will snap. There has been much bloodshed in Arab life, everyone knows all too well. But the Hariri murder, in full public view at midday in West Beirut, claimed the Syrian power structure as its collateral damage. Assad's move to replace the head of military intelligence with his brother-in-law only days after Hariri's murder was a clumsy response to the suspicions swirling around Syria.

The claims of an Iranian-Syrian accord should also not be given much credence. Iran's horizons are wider, and Iran's interests differ radically from those of Syria. For all their strident revolutionary poses, the Iranians are shrewd, unsentimental practitioners of realpolitik. Iran's pursuit of its nuclear ambitions (or the barter of these ambitions for economic and political concessions from Europe and the United States) overwhelms the concerns of Syria, with its extortion rackets in the Bekaa Valley and Tripoli. Tehran will not ride to the rescue of Damascus.

THE STORM WAVE OF FREEDOM

The independence of Lebanon should not be feared; it is not stability that the Syrians provide. The sky will not fall if Syria pulls out its troops. The Lebanese can take heart from recent events, for the army has not split up, and the institutions of the state have held thus far. Terrorism may yet make its appearance and threaten the fragile peace. It is then that the Lebanese will be tested. But come what may, the "trusteeship" of Syria has outlived its use. What the Syrians have built is a safe haven and a sanctuary for terror.

The nature and makeup of the Syrian regime is not known with confidence. It is part Stalinist, part tribal-sectarian. Fundamentally, it is remarkably similar to the Tikriti edifice built by Saddam. It has the strengths and weaknesses of sectarian control: the secretiveness, the devotion to the clan, the subordination to the leader, and the brittleness at the center of it all. Hafiz al-Assad, the shrewd peasant soldier who built this dominion and brought the Alawis out of their insularity to their current position of power and material plenty, knew the ways of his region. But to judge by the ongoing performance of Syria in Iraq and Lebanon, his son lacks his subtlety.

In one reading, Damascus will fight for its turf in Lebanon. The Syrians will see their eviction from Lebanon as the first step toward "regime change" in their own country. Syria's rulers have nowhere to go. They ride a tiger, and the retribution against them, were they to be overthrown, would be frightful. But there are grounds for a less apocalyptic view of things. In this more realistic scenario, withdrawing from Lebanon would have no consequences for the survival of the regime in Damascus. The withdrawal would be deliberate, first to the Bekaa Valley, then across the border. The Syrians would be given a fig leaf of an orderly retreat, in accordance with Security Council Resolution 1559 and with a 1989 agreement concluded in Taif, Saudi Arabia, that legitimized Syria's reach into Lebanon but made clear, in spirit, that Syria's role was contingent on Israel's occupation of Lebanese territory. A Lebanese parliamentary election scheduled for May is sure to bring a lopsided victory for Syria's opponents, providing the perfect opportunity for the emergent Lebanese government to ask for Syrian withdrawal.

Even if Syria leaves, there is no swift sword that would extirpate with one stroke its influence in Lebanon. The claims of contiguity, and geography more generally, would continue to make themselves felt. But what would end is the debilitating machinery of control that the Syrians use to dominate so much of Lebanon's life. In their fashion, the Syrians have been darkly warning that they would set Beirut to the torch and bring about a second civil war were they forced to pull out. There is primitiveness here, but bluff as well. Lebanon's prosperity has spared the Syrians the consequences of their own inefficiencies. Lebanon's banks have functioned as a banking system for the Syrians. And an estimated 600,000 Syrian laborers have found work across the border. Damascus would not likely destroy a country upon which it relies.

In addition, the will of Europe and the United States -- and of the other Arab states, if they can be relied upon -- could come into play. Syria is not a warrior state: it lives off tourist receipts and a respectable amount of oil income, and it needs the economic skills and resources of the foreign world. The Syrians cannot settle for a scorched-earth retreat in Lebanon.

In fact, Syria's Lebanon enterprise exacts a toll on Syria itself. The occupation favors the military and the nomenklatura and robs Syrian intellectuals of a next-door country where they might be able to enjoy a margin of freedom. It was in that vein that a group of prominent Syrian thinkers and oppositionists wrote an open letter to their Lebanese counterparts that was published on February 24 in Lebanon's most prestigious paper, An-Nahar -- a national institution in its own right, which has been fearless in its advocacy of Syria's withdrawal. The essay was a moving tribute to Hariri, a message of condolence to the Lebanese over the death of their leader. His murder was a "terrible ugly slaughter planned and perpetrated by those who do not wish to see Lebanon healthy, united, and free," the letter read. It continued:

We fully support your demand for the withdrawal of the Syrian army from Lebanon, for the rectification of Syrian-Lebanese relations, for the building of a relationship based on equality, independence, and the free choice of both peoples. We have long expressed this view through all means available to us, for we as educated Syrians have always found in Lebanon a window for the expression of ideas not permitted us in our own homeland.

This is not quite a "Damascus spring," but in Syria, too, there can be seen the stirrings of freedom. The Syrian people can now see what is going on in the larger world. The Syrians, long in the grip of autocracy, now find themselves in the crosscurrents of change. To their east, a new Iraqi democracy struggles to take root and move away from dynastic succession and the cult of statues and supreme leaders. To their west, valiant (and stylish) young Lebanese have taken to the streets to proclaim their attachment to liberty. Fear stalks Syria, to be sure: the rulers fear that the world menaces their old privileges, and ordinary Syrians fear that an embattled regime could visit on them its wrath and mercilessness. The Syrian rulers must know that they have run their string in Beirut. But they may want to put on a brave face, as Assad did in a much-anticipated speech to his parliament on March 5. He mixed hints of withdrawal with a false, serene insistence that Syria will not be hustled out of Lebanon.

Deep down the Syrians no doubt once believed that a Pax Americana pressed in Iraq could be made to strike a bargain: Iraq for Lebanon. The Syrians would provide their own version of cooperation on the Syrian-Iraqi border in return for the old acceptance of their dominion in Lebanon. This sort of bargain has had its advocates in Washington. But it now lies in shambles. For one, the Syrians have not made good on their promises of cooperation. Then, too, the prospect of a functioning Iraqi government that would tend to its own affairs with Syria and hold it responsible for its deeds suddenly seems within reach. This was the outcome of Iraq's elections. And there has been that discernible change in Washington that makes tolerance for Syria harder to live with: the new emphasis on freedom, the assertion by President Bush that the old bargain with Arab autocracies has been an incubator for terror.

The entrenched systems of control in the Arab world are beginning to give way. It is a terrible storm, but the perfect antidote to a foul sky. The old Arab edifice of power, it is true, has had a way of surviving many storms. It has outwitted and outlived many predictions of its imminent demise.

But suddenly it seems like the autumn of the dictators. Something different has been injected into this fight. The United States -- a great foreign power that once upheld the Arab autocrats, fearing what mass politics would bring -- now braves the storm. It has signaled its willingness to gamble on the young, the new, and the unknown. Autocracy was once deemed tolerable, but terrorists, nurtured in the shadow of such rule, attacked the United States on September 11, 2001. Now the Arabs, grasping for a new world, and the Americans, who have helped usher in this unprecedented moment, together ride this storm wave of freedom.

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  • Fouad Ajami is Majid Khadduri Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
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