When Lebanese Prime Minister Omar Karame asked to resign last weekend, the Syrians made clear to their man in Beirut that his quitting would harm them just when Damascus was under mounting Lebanese and international pressure. Karame didn't hand in his resignation. Not then, in any case.
But it turned out yesterday that Syria can no longer avert the political collapse in Lebanon, and that there was no other choice but to make sacrifices. It is possible that the Karame resignation last night is only the first in a series of steps Syria will take to satisfy tumultuous Lebanese public opinion - and to preserve what remains of its stature in Lebanon.
Thus, Syrian sources in Lebanon were leaking yesterday that Syrian President Bashar Assad plans to fire Rustum Ghazal, head of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon and the focal point of the anger of the Lebanese opposition. In his place, Assad would name Gen. Munir Jalud.
Other leaks suggested that Assad intends a much broader move to throw out various "power centers" he inherited from his father in the Damascus regime. While the reports did not name names, apparently the reference is to ministers and possibly his deputy, Abdul Halim Haddam. The purge would be meant to remove any suspicion from him, and to point to "elements" in the regime who acted on their own, causing damage to national interests. Or so said the sources.
In any case, the rapid pace of developments that began in October 2004 with the Syrian-imposed three-year extension of President Emile Lahoud's term in office, which forced the resignation of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri - who was assassinated February 14 - could hasten the Syrian departure from Lebanon much sooner than originally planned.
Assad's mention to the Italian newspaper La Repubblica that "technical reasons" would keep Syrian troops in Lebanon until the end of the year will probably need to be updated.
Assad is now in a new and dangerous situation, as far as Syria is concerned. He's been stripped of his exclusive control over Lebanese politics, and the government whose prime minister he appointed has resigned, leaving him with the somewhat nonsensical statement, "the resignation of the Lebanese government is a domestic Lebanese issue."
Assad cannot be sure there is no subterfuge aimed against him in his own forces, and he has been forced to succumb to intense public opinion in Lebanon. He could soon find himself without the inheritance his father handed to him.
The question now is what tactic he will chose to manage the current crisis. On the assumption he does not want to clash directly with the Lebanese opposition, and use the excuse that Syrian involvement is necessary to prevent a Lebanese civil war, he could announce a timetable for the withdrawal of his forces or even start an immediate withdrawal. That might neutralize the main demand from the opposition, and reduce the French-American pressure regarding UN Security Resolution 1559.
He could also try to gain time by announcing he will wait until the May elections so Syria can meanwhile continue "helping" Karame's transitional government.
But the pace of the developments and the slogans being chanted yesterday by the thousands of demonstrators demanding the removal of Lahoud could deny Assad even that little amount of time. If he waits until May's elections, the new parliament could still amend the constitution or even throw out Lahoud.
In any case, these are the twilight days of the Syrian political control over Lebanon. The next question will be whether the Syrian establishment will seek to punish the young president for losing Lebanon.
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