WASHINGTON -- Say what you will about Bashar Assad, dictator of Syria and perhaps the dimmest eye doctor ever produced by British medical schools, but subtle he is not. Since the huge street demonstrations against his occupation of Lebanon, three terror bombings have occurred there, all in heavily Christian, anti-Syrian neighborhoods. Only slightly less subtle was the nearly half-million-man Beirut rally demanding Syria's continued occupation staged by Syria's Lebanese client, Hezbollah, followed by the ``spontaneous'' demonstration Assad orchestrated for himself in Damascus.
Then there is this week's public admission by a captured Hamas terrorist in Israel that he was trained in Syria. This is the first direct account of such active involvement by Syria, although everyone knows that the Palestinian terror groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad are headquartered in, and assisted by, Syria. Everyone also knows that Syria is abetting the terrorist insurgency in Iraq.
Syria made its intentions unmistakable when Assad sent his prime minister to Tehran to declare an alliance with Iran when world pressure began to build on Damascus following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.
All this regional mischief-making is critical because we are at the dawn of an Arab Spring -- the first bloom of democracy in Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, Palestine and throughout the greater Middle East -- and its emerging mortal enemy is a new axis of evil whose fulcrum is Syria. The axis stretches from Iran, the other remaining terror state in the region, to Syria to the local terror groups -- Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad -- that are bent on destabilizing Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and destroying both Lebanese independence and the current Israeli-Palestinian rapprochement.
Iran is the senior partner of this axis of evil. Syria is the crucial middle party allowing a non-Arab state to reach into the heart of the Middle East. For example, Hezbollah receives its weapons from Iran, shipped through Syria. And Iranian Revolutionary Guards are stationed today in the Bekaa Valley, under Syrian protection.
The alliance goes back a long way. Syria under the Assad dynasty was the only major Arab country to support Persian Iran against Arab Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War. They form a true axis because, unlike the 2002 State of the Union axis, all of the parts are connected and working with each other. The last axis of evil -- Iran, North Korea and Saddam's Iraq -- was evil but no axis. They were more like points of evil with North Korea included, as I wrote at the time, as a concession to ethnic diversity.
Today the immediate objective of this Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-Hamas-Islamic Jihad axis is to destabilize Syria's neighbors (Iraq, Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian Authority) and sabotage any Arab-Israeli peace. Its strategic aim is to quash the Arab Spring, which if not stopped would isolate, surround and seriously imperil these remaining centers of terror and radicalism.
How then to defeat it? Iran is too large, oil-rich and entrenched to be confronted directly. The terror groups are too shadowy. But Syria is different. Being a state, it has an address. The identity and location of its leadership, military installations and other fixed assets are known. Unlike Iran, however, it has no oil of any significance. It is poor and the regime is weak, despised not only for its corruption and incompetence, but also because of its extremely narrow ethnic base. Assad and his gang are almost exclusively from the Alawite sect, a Shiite offshoot considered heretical by many Muslims and representing about 10 percent of the Syrian population.
Syria is the prize. It is vulnerable and critical, the geographic center of the axis, the transshipment point for weapons, and the territorial haven for Iranian and regional terrorists.
If Syria can be flipped, the axis is broken. Iran will not be able to communicate directly with the local terrorists. They will be further weakened by the loss of their Syrian sponsor and protector. Prospects both for true Lebanese independence and Arab-Israeli peace would improve dramatically.
As Iraq, in fits and starts, begins finding its way to self-rule, the center of gravity of the Bush Doctrine and the American democratization project shifts to Lebanon/Syria. The rapid evacuation and collapse of the Syrian position in Lebanon is crucial not just because of what it will do for Lebanon, but because of the weakening effect it will have on the Assad dictatorship.
We need therefore to be relentless in insisting on a full (and as humiliating as possible) evacuation of Syria from Lebanon, followed by a campaign of economic, political and military pressure on the Assad regime. We must push now and push hard.