May 2, 2005 | Commentary on International Organizations

Syria's Spy Lie

Don't get too giddy about the "historic" withdrawal of 14,000 Syrian troops from Lebanon last week. It was a terrific sight, indeed, but it was only the tip of the "Syrian influence" iceberg in Lebanon.

The real source of Syrian power in Lebanon isn't the military. On the contrary, it's Syrian intelligence. As the Syrian army marched homeward, thousands of Syrian "spooks" - perhaps as many as 5,000 - remained behind.

After 29 years of holding Lebanon by the throat, Syria isn't going to loosen its iron grip without a struggle. Evicting Syria's "burrowed-in" security apparatus - and influence - from Lebanon isn't going to be easy.

Last September, the United Nations passed resolution 1559, calling on Syria to withdraw its "forces" from Lebanon. Following the February assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and massive anti-Syrian street demonstrations in Beirut, Syria committed to pullout. "

Last week Damascus informed the United Nations that it had done so. A three-member U.N. team traveled to Lebanon to verify the Syrian claim. Nonetheless, many remain skeptical.

State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said last week: "I think there are some lingering concerns that not all Syrian intelligence assets are out of Lebanon and it's important that they do leave Lebanon and Lebanese territory fully and completely . . . "

"Lingering concerns"?

Damascus has had almost three decades to penetrate every aspect of Lebanon's government with a slew of Syrian spies. Every Lebanese intelligence service is, in fact, pro-Syrian and cooperates closely with Syrian intelligence.

Also, Syria handpicked senior high-ranking Lebanese intelligence officials. There's no doubt that other key organizations - such as the Lebanese foreign ministry, military and law enforcement - are awash in Syrian agents as well.

Although Syria closed its infamous intelligence headquarters at Beirut's Beau Rivage hotel, the office's shuttering was merely a gratuitous gesture to the international community.

Syrian spooks have decamped from their high-visibility Beirut headquarters for new locations south of Beirut - and elsewhere, including safe houses around the country.

Syrian spies have also re-deployed to Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and other "friendly areas" in the eastern Bekaa Valley along the Syrian border.

Syria agents are also operating "legitimate" businesses such as cell-phone networks. Some Syrian intelligence officers have married Lebanese, making them particularly difficult to identify and uproot.

Syrian intelligence's political relationships with pro-Syrian Lebanese politicos will continue to sway policy. The biggest problem - for the moment - is Lebanon's new(est) Prime Minister, Najib Mikati, a pal of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

But perhaps the most troubling element of Syrian power in Lebanon is its close relationship with the Lebanese Shiite terrorist group, Hezbollah.

Not only is the Iranian-backed, Syrian-supported terrorist group the largest and most powerful militant group in Lebanon, it has political clout, too.

It's extremely popular with Lebanon's large Shia community: It runs a newspaper and a TV station, and provides a social safety net of hospitals, clinics and schools.

Hezbollah now holds 12 seats in the country's 128-member parliament. It also orchestrated large counter-demonstrations during the early days of the Cedar Revolution, calling attention to Hezbollah's might and expressing pro-Syrian/anti-foreign sentiments.

The Bush administration has (wisely) avoided any head-on confrontation with Hezbollah for the moment, calling instead upon it to disarm (as stipulated in resolution 1559) and fully join the political process.

Hezbollah is Lebanon's wild card. It can peacefully support Syria at the ballot box; it can also lash out, wielding its terrorist's mace to smash Lebanese stability or clobber the Middle East peace process.

If Lebanon is going to truly - and fully - regain its sovereignty from Syria, reducing Damascus' influence in Lebanon in advance of this month's scheduled parliamentary elections is critical.

The United States (and like-minded France) should pressure Saudi Arabia and Egypt (Syrian allies), and Russia (which just sold air defense missiles to Damascus) to get Syria to yank its spies out of Lebanon, and steer clear of the elections.

(Admittedly, in the short term this is likely to be of limited use, but it's worth a try with the voting so close. Free-and-fair elections would certainly be a good sign of progress on the Syrian-spy front.)

Ideally, following successful elections, Beirut would replace all pro-Syrian intelligence and military chiefs and purge the government of Syrian spies and sympathizers.

In the long term, if Damascus fails to recall its intel assets, Washington (and Paris) should take the matter to the U.N. Security Council for punitive sanctions.

Assad's regime is already on the skids with the "old guard" for "losing" Lebanon, and with the young for its repression and dismal economic performance (20 percent unemployment.)

Fresh international political pressure and economic sanctions might just be what is needed to free Lebanon from the clutches of Syria's spooks - and start the ball rolling for a peaceful, liberating "Black and Red" revolution in Damascus.

Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow. E-mail: peterbrookes@heritage.org

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in the New York Post