Lebanon's task is to create a new democratic order

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 March, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 March, 2005, 12:00am

Growing international pressure is apparently behind Syria's commitment to withdraw completely its troops from Lebanon, where they have been stationed since 1976.

But dominance of neighbouring Lebanon is still crucial to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his country's prestige in the Middle East. Any moves that diminish that influence also have implications for Mr Assad's grip on power at home. The protracted negotiations and continued international co-ordination needed to see that the promised withdrawal actually happens should not be underestimated.

By the end of this month, if Damascus lives up to its word, about 5,000 soldiers and another 5,000 intelligence officers will have returned to Syria. The remaining 10,000 or so troops will be withdrawn to a border area within Lebanese territory; when these soldiers leave is a matter to be negotiated in the coming weeks.

Damascus has made such pledges before, including as part of the 1989 treaty that ended Syria's civil war. The international community, through the United Nations, will have to show Mr Assad's government that it has the will to impose sanctions if the promises do not lead to a full withdrawal.

A Lebanese government free of Syrian influence would be a sign of progress, but that would not be the end of the story. The assassination one month ago of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri has unleashed an entirely new political dynamic, the outcome of which is far from certain.

Opposition politicians and the wider public have been emboldened, staging mass demonstrations calling for Syria to leave and Hariri's killing to be investigated. But pro-Syrian Hezbollah politicians have also shown their ability to mobilise constituents to join mass rallies and a pro-Syrian prime minister was reappointed mere days after he was forced to resign.

The power-sharing arrangements for a more independent Lebanon have yet to be settled, while the difficult question of how to disarm Hezbollah's armed wing and other militants is being deferred until after the Syrian pullout. The country's advantages include democratic institutions, a cosmopolitan populace and a free press. But the fault lines of religious and ethnic differences exist in Lebanon just as they do elsewhere in the region.

UN negotiators and the world's diplomats are correct to be focusing their attention first on extracting a withdrawal timetable from Damascus. May's parliamentary elections, which will be credible only if they are held in a Lebanon that is free from military occupation, should influence the schedule.

After a withdrawal has been accomplished, however, the Lebanese will still face some daunting challenges. Ensuring that the power vacuum left by a departing Syria is filled by a new democratic order, and not sectarian chaos, will be the main one.