MIDDLE EAST: Losing the big picture
Alon Ben-Meir

While the United States should encourage democratic reforms in the Middle East, the administration of George W. Bush must not overestimate the `democratic surge sweeping the region` and so lose sight of the social, political, and religious realities that will ultimately affect meaningful reform.

The Bush administration might also get what it wishes for in Lebanon - a democratic election - but this very outcome may plunge the country into another devastating civil war and/or provide Hizbullah with the opportunity to determine Lebanon`s future.

While the US continues to promote democracy and encourage the Arab masses to rise and demand a `government of, by and for the people,` one wonders if it will also come to the aid of the masses if the governments of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, or other Arab nations crack down violently to end what they perceive to be a serious threat to their power.

Arab intellectuals keep reminding their audiences how in 1991 the United States encouraged Iraqi Shias to rise up against Saddam Hussein immediately after the first Gulf War, only to be butchered by Saddam when they did, while America stood by.

And they also still write about how the United States encouraged the military in Algeria to scuttle the first democratic election in that country in 1991 because the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was heading toward a clear victory.

The resulting sectarian violence claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Algerians. And, of course, the Arab world also still talks about how in October 1983 the United States pulled out of Lebanon following a suicide car bomb there that killed 241 service members, leaving the Lebanese mired in a civil war that killed nearly 200,000 people.

It does not seem as if the US president has learned from the mistakes of his predecessors. In pushing Syria to withdraw its forces from Lebanon and promote a free and democratic election in that country, his administration is ignoring the potential for sectarian conflict inherent in Lebanon`s demographic makeup.

Yes, Lebanon deserves to be free, and in due course it must be so. But the question that must first be answered is: How can Lebanon become a true democratic state without another civil war or without permitting Hizbullah, a Shia militant group, to control its political destiny?

Lebanon is awash with political parties, but most of them are organized along sectarian lines with individual figures in leadership positions who have no specific political agenda but are motivated primarily by religious or clan interests.

Of all the political parties in Lebanon - among them those affiliated with the Druze, the Sunnis, the Maronites, and the Greek Catholics - Hizbullah is the most organized and the most heavily financed.

Receiving most of its financial and military hardware from Iran, it also boasts the best-trained and equipped guerrilla fighting force, one that even the Lebanese military cannot challenge.

And although determined to install an Islamic government, Hizbullah enjoys the support of Syria because it serves Syrian strategic interests in Lebanon.

Even if Syria is finally pressured to exit completely, Damascus will not sever its special relations with Hizbullah. This connection ensures its continuing influence in Lebanese affairs, which Syria sees as necessary to prevent Lebanon from making peace with Israel before Damascus settles its conflict with Israel over the Golan, which Israel captured in 1967.

Has the Bush administration figured out a way to deal with Hizbullah, which it considers as a terrorist organization? It will have to because Hizbullah will certainly play a significant, if not dominant, political role in any future Lebanese government.

To discern Syria`s ultimate intentions and how the situation in Lebanon may evolve, one has to look at the larger picture. Syria considers Lebanon as part and parcel of greater Syria, and its interests in Lebanon are crucial to its reclaiming the Golan. Syria`s passionate desire in this regard is central to its policy and behavior toward Lebanon.

Scores of conversations I`ve had with Syrian and Israeli officials, including deputy foreign minister Walid Al Mualim, have only emphasized how during the Israeli-Syrian negotiations from the late 1990s through mid-2000, Syria always insisted on its special relationship with Lebanon and demanded American and Israeli recognition of that fact to be formally acknowledged in any peace accord.

As a matter of record, both the Clinton administration and successive Israeli governments recognized Syria`s special role and conceded that its presence in Lebanon was a stabilizing factor. All subsequent negotiations among the various parties presupposed that understanding.

It was also established during this period that peace between Israel and Lebanon would simply be an extension of an Israeli-Syrian peace and Hizbullah would be dealt with (disarmed) only in that context.

Indeed, Syria alone can bring Hizbullah to heel, a fact only too well known to the Israelis. Some Israeli officials still believe that if Syria leaves Lebanon abruptly, it could encourage a violent sectarian conflict, with serious regional repercussions, from which Hizbullah would benefit the most. Thus, it is an illusion to think that Israel can make peace with Lebanon before reaching an agreement over the Golan Heights with Syria.

No one can countenance Syria`s behavior in Lebanon or its support of assorted terrorist Palestinian groups that operate at its whim. But to pressure Syria to leave Lebanon completely without even a hint about the future of the Golan will simply not work.

Besides, Syria`s President Bashar Al Assad cannot make such a fateful decision on his own even if he wanted to. He is surrounded by hardcore old guard Baathists who supported his father and who have no intention of deviating from their national agenda of recovering the Golan while maintaining a significant measure of influence over Lebanon`s politics.

So Assad will take the symbolic steps, such as the concessions he offered in his speech before the Syrian parliament - a gradual withdrawal of his forces to Lebanese territory near the Syrian border - to ease the international pressure on him. But as he still struggles to consolidate his power base, he may not be in a position to go beyond these gestures, lest he risk his own political fortunes.

For these reasons, the United States must do more than merely fan the flames of democratic reform in the Middle East.

Although the Arab people, like any other people, yearn for freedom and democracy, each Arab state is unique and therefore requires a political approach that fits its own historical, cultural, religious, and sectarian orientation. Lebanon is not Iraq, and Saudi Arabia is not Egypt. The administration must learn from its costly mistakes in Iraq and seek a comprehensive solution to the Israeli-Syrian/Lebanese conflict before it sets Beirut on fire.

Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU and is the Middle East Project Director at the World Policy Institute, New York.