For two reasons: economics and psychology. Like all Soviet-style systems, the Syrian economy is moribund. It lives off Lebanese commerce and corruption. Take that away and a pillar of the Assad kleptocracy disappears. As does the psychological pillar. Dictatorships like Assad's rule by fear, which is sustained by power and the illusion of power. Control of Lebanon is the centerpiece of that illusion. The loss of Lebanon, at the hands of unarmed civilians no less, would be a deadly blow to the Assad mystique, perhaps enough to revoke his mandate from heaven.
And why is Syria so important? Because Assad has succeeded Saddam as the principal bad actor in the region. Syria, an island of dictatorship in a sea of liberalization, is desperately trying to destabilize its neighbors. The Hariri bombing in Lebanon is universally believed to be the work of Syria. The orders for the Feb. 25 Tel Aviv bombing, deliberately designed to blow up the new Palestinian-Israeli rapprochement, came from Damascus. And we know that Syria is sheltering leading Baathist insurgents who are killing Iraqis and Americans by the score in Iraq.
There was a brief Damascus Spring five years ago when Syrians began demanding more freedom. Assad repressed it. Now 140 Syrian intellectuals have petitioned their own government to withdraw from Lebanon. They signed their names. The fear is lifting there too. Were the contagion to spread to Damascus, the entire region from the Mediterranean Sea to the Iranian border would be on a path to democratization.
This of course could all be reversed. Liberal revolutions were suppressed in Europe 1848, Hungary 1956, Czechoslovakia 1968 and Tiananmen 1989. Nothing is written. Determined and ruthless regimes can extinguish revolutions. Which is why the worst thing we can possibly do is ``engage and empower'' the tyrants.
This is no time to listen to the voices of tremulousness, indecision, compromise and fear. If we had listened to them two years ago, we would still be doing oil-for-food, no-fly zones and worthless embargoes. It is our principles that brought us to this moment by way of Afghanistan and Iraq. They need to guide us now -- through Beirut to Damascus.
Charles Krauthammer is a 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner, 1984 National Magazine Award winner, and a columnist for The Washington Post since 1985.
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