The assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on Feb. 14, has not begun a new crisis in the Middle East. Rather, Mr. Hariri's murder, probably at Syrian instigation, is the culmination of tensions between the United States and Syria that began in April 2003 as U.S. troops were sweeping into Baghdad. If we understand the bloody removal of a politician who dared to snub Damascus as the ultimate act of defiance of an outlaw regime, then we can chart a successful path through the coming weeks and months.
What we are facing here is standard Syrian survival strategy of exporting trouble to be able to better retain control at home. What the Syrian regime is saying is that you can have democracy or stability, but you cannot have both. That is why the Syrian Ba'athists are destabilizing Iraq and Lebanon to create havoc and so discredit these fragile democracies. A sectarian war in Iraq between Sunni Arabs, Shiia Arabs and Kurds would suit Syria just fine and conveniently tie up the United States for the foreseeable future. Similarly, chaos in Lebanon justifies a continued Syrian presence.
The U.S. response to this strategy of defiance and destabilization should be to regard the killing of Mr. Hariri as a massive Syrian miscalculation, an opportunity to change policy for the better. The United States must not allow Syria to commit murder and then escape retribution by laying low and hoping that the diplomatic storm will pass. If such an approach is taken, then Damascus will surely strike again. The next U.S. step, following the withdrawal of the U.S. ambassador in Damascus, must be to open a front against the Syria Ba'athists in their own backyard. Not a military front, far from it, but a popular civilian offensive. The United States should aim to create the same disequilibrium in Syria that the Syrian Ba'athists so readily encourage elsewhere.
The United States has no need to mobilize its own troops, but should, instead, seek to mobilize Syrians. The Reform Party of Syria, along with other Syrian opposition groups, can mobilize thousands of people for acts of civil disobedience within Syria. To do so, we will need U.S. support. Alone, we will suffer the same fate as the Lebanese. With U.S. assistance, however, we can hold the Ba'athist regime accountable for its crimes at home and abroad. As Mohammad al-Douri, then Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations said on April 10, 2003, the day after Saddam's statue came down in Baghdad, "The game is over." If the United States gives the Syrian opposition its backing, the game will be over in Damascus as well.