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Subject: NATO's first stop: Lebanon

Freedom Fighter
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Date Posted: 16:25:50 07/19/04 Mon

NATO's first stop: Lebanon

July 19, 2004 2004 - Lebanonwire

Once rid of its occupiers, it could provide a powerful model for the region

NATO leaders agreed at their recent Istanbul summit to offer a "dialogue" to Middle Eastern countries to help improve security and stability in the region. If NATO is serious about stabilizing the Middle East, by helping to advance democracy and economic prosperity, the place to start is Lebanon.

Lebanon is a country that could become a pluralistic and open society based on cooperation among its religious and ethnic communities. The entrepreneurship and economic dynamism of its people could restore its former prosperity - a magnet for tourism and investment, and a model for other countries in the region.

Yet for that potential to be realized Lebanon must be liberated from two occupations.

The first one is external. Syria has a 20,000-strong occupation force on the ground, but its domination of Lebanon relies also on the pervasive presence of agents of Syrian military intelligence.

In addition Syria counts on the loyalty of large segments of the ruling political class, which owe their power to Damascus. Syria's "temporary" military presence, authorized to keep the peace when the Lebanese civil war ended in 1989, has become a permanent occupation.

Nowadays the Lebanese appear to have very little appetite for civil strife. Their priorities are to revitalize the economy and maintain a free society, which will assure them an acceptable livelihood and keep the younger generation from emigrating.

In order to prevent the political violence that might, nonetheless, erupt following a Syrian withdrawal and to help maintain security during a period of transition leading to free elections and new, independent political institutions, NATO forces should be deployed.

It is reasonable to expect that this step could be authorized by the United Nations, which has passed resolutions calling for all foreign troops to withdraw from Lebanon.

THE SECOND occupation is domestic. Hizbullah, the only armed militia not dismantled by Syria after the civil war, is used by Damascus to bully its local adversaries, such as Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri, and to prop up President Emile Lahoud, Syria's prot g .

Hizbullah, with Syria's blessing, is the actual government in southern Lebanon.

On June 26, for example, an armed Hizbullah unit arbitrarily prevented Lebanese Minister of Tourism Ali Hussain Abdallah from visiting an archeological site near Tyre.

More importantly, Hizbullah's firepower, consisting of enough advanced rockets and artillery pieces to devastate the northern part of Israel, is a source of constant tension and instability. Enjoying practically extraterritorial status, and not only in the south, Hizbullah acts as Iran's long arm to train, equip and operate Palestinian terrorists and undermine peace efforts.

Disarming Hizbullah is a prerequisite for restoring Lebanese sovereignty, along with the Syrian withdrawal. It will also help turn the beautiful areas of southern Lebanon and northern Israel from war zones into major tourist attractions.

Here too NATO has an important role to play. The reported involvement of Hizbullah in the unrest in Iraq is another reason for dismantling the military arm of the organization.

At the summit in Istanbul NATO leaders decided to upgrade relations with seven countries, including Israel, in a "Mediterranean dialogue." This upgrading of relations represents another step toward making the Middle East and Central Asia the central theater of NATO operations.

A former supreme commander of NATO, Joseph Ralston, recently suggested deploying NATO troops in Gaza following an Israeli disengagement.

Syria has so far shrugged off international demands that it pull out of Lebanon: The issue has not been a priority for the US and Europe, hence Syria has so far suffered few political and economic consequences. This could change if NATO and EU member states came out strongly in favor of a free and prosperous Lebanon as a key component of the Greater Middle East concept, and imposed economic and political pressure on Syria.

That would mean reformulating Syrian-Lebanese relations - from domination to cooperation - which would include Syrian participation in disarming Hizbullah. NATO's role, then, would not be to fight to establish peace, but to help preserve it until a new, independent government took full control of the country.

If the Sh'ites, Sunnis, and Christians of Lebanon, helped by the international community through organizations like NATO, can cooperate to regain independence, freedom and civil peace, their success will provide a powerful lesson to others in the Middle East, and first and foremost to the religious and ethnic communities in Iraq.

The restoration of Lebanese sovereignty and independence must therefore not be delayed.

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