After the assassination of popular former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri a month ago, Lebanese by the tens of thousands turned out in the streets of Beirut to demand the resignation of the pro-Syrian regime that most Lebanese believe was responsible for Hariri's death.
The protesters even forced the resignation of the prime minister, and wrung a promise from Syrian strongman Bashar Assad to heed a United Nations resolution demanding that Syria get its troops and its intelligence agents out of Lebanon. This seemingly marked another victory for President Bush's push for freedom and democracy in the Middle East.
But last week, counter-demonstrations mounted by Hezbollah drew at least 350,000 Shiite Muslims into Beirut's streets chanting the praises of Syria and Assad, and urging Syrian troops to stay to protect them from the Americans, Israelis and another civil war.
In response, Syria's Lebanese puppet president, Emile Lahoud, reappointed the prime minister he had just fired a few weeks earlier, and asked him to form a new government.
Hezbollah is a thug organization that will use terror, murder or whatever it takes to have its way. Americans first became aware of what Hezbollah is capable of two decades ago when its members beheaded the CIA station chief in Beirut and cruelly singled out a U.S. soldier to torture and beat to death in full view of passengers on a hijacked TWA flight.
Hezbollah's pro-Syrian demonstrations were drummed up by a combination of intimidation, Shiite navete and the busing in of protesters from Damascus. However, the bottom line is that Hezbollah, in free and open Lebanon elections, would be trounced by the opposition - Sunni Muslims, Christians, Druze and enlightened, unintimidated Shiites. Hezbollah knows this, and will do everything possible to keep Syria in Lebanon to stifle free elections.
But it's looking tougher for them as renewed anti-Syrian demonstrations this week draws millions into the streets of Beirut, dwarfing Hezbollah's rally.
So far, the demonstrations have been nonviolent, and as long as Syria keeps its promise to withdraw, a civil war probably can be averted. Yet a lot depends on France. France has stood firm with the United States and other Western nations on the U.N. resolution requiring a full Syrian pullout.
But now, according to The Wall Street Journal, the Assad regime is considering offering the French billions in business deals, including the rights to develop a cluster of gas fields in Syria's precious desert region. The purpose, of course, is to shake France loose from its commitment to the U.N. resolution and to make nice with Syria again.
This would be a serious test of French President Jacques Chirac's integrity: his willingness to stick with the United States on an important freedom issue despite his nation's powerful anti-Bush sentiment, and an opportunity to score some mighty lucrative deals with Syria.
Sadly, we are not confident any policy can succeed that depends on the integrity of France.
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