With the arrival in Baghdad of Jay Garner, the designated US overseer of post-war Iraq, America's mission to establish freedom and democracy in Iraq has now squarely entered its second phase.
Although Garner is no doubt aware of the many indigenous obstacles to building sustainable democratic institutions in Iraq (hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Shi'ites took to the streets recently as if to remind him), the most powerful challenge he will face emanates not from the country's complex cultural mosaic nor troubled political heritage, but from the ousted Iraqi government's sister regime in Damascus.
Syrian President Bashar Assad whose regime is controlled by the same political party that spawned Saddam Hussein, also concentrates power in the hands of a small ethno-sectarian minority and employs similar Stalinist techniques to subdue its population sees the flame of freedom in Iraq as an existential threat.
Having done everything in his power to prevent the lighting of this flame, from arming the last remnants of Saddam's once-vaunted military to mobilizing suicide bombers to fight on its behalf, he will most assuredly do everything in his power to extinguish it.
Colin Powell will shortly be paying a visit to Damascus for what he has called a "very vigorous diplomatic exchange" with Assad. While the American secretary of state will no doubt seek to obtain promises from Syria not to thwart democratization in Iraq, his very presence in the Syrian capital will undermine Garner's mission in Iraq unless he publicly demands an immediate end to Syria's sponsorship of terrorist organizations and its continuing occupation of Lebanon.
An end to Syrian sponsorship of terrorist organizations is critical to the success of American democracy-building in Iraq for several reasons.
FIRST, Syria's ability to fan the flames of Arab-Israeli violence through terrorist proxies perpetuates a regional climate that inhibits democratization and fuels distrust of the US. Second, these terrorist groups are already serving as Syria's foot soldiers in Iraq.
Islamic Jihad openly acknowledges having sent hundreds of suicide bombers to Iraq from its camps in Syria and Syrian-occupied Lebanon.
Third, if Assad believes that he can continue ignoring American warnings about sponsoring terrorism, why should he heed our warnings about intervention in Iraq?
The departure of Syrian forces in Lebanon would also bolster the democratization of Iraq. Lebanon was once a healthy and thriving democracy, with a vibrant banking system and dynamic merchant culture. Indeed, it is precisely because of this legacy that Damascus implanted a satellite regime in Beirut, which survives only because of the continuing presence of over 20,000 Syrian soldiers in Lebanon.
The restoration of Lebanese democracy would provide a model for a democratic Iraq and reinforce its political transformation. As the rapid, simultaneous transitions that took place in Eastern Europe at the end of the Cold War demonstrated, democracy loves company and abhors a vacuum. The rebirth of democracy in Lebanon, alongside a reformed Palestinian Authority, would facilitate its growth in Iraq and elsewhere in the Arab world.
The US does not need to force-feed democracy on Lebanon. The country's democratic civil society has survived under Syrian occupation and will reassert itself when the last Syrian soldier leaves.
Passing up an opportunity to facilitate such a transition would send the wrong message to Assad and other autocrats throughout the Middle East that America's commitment to democracy in Iraq is the exception, rather than the rule. On this score, the US cannot afford to be misunderstood.
The writer is president of the US Committee for a Free Lebanon www.freelebanon.org and founder and co-publisher of the Middle East Intelligence Bulletin www.meib.org. He is an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
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