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A SOFTER APPROACH IN LEBANON

The final withdrawal of the Syrian army from Lebanon on Tuesday marks a victory for what is known as "soft power." The Syrians were driven from Lebanon not by force of arms, but by a nonviolent Lebanese independence movement, a United Nations diplomatic effort and a broad coalition of allies organized by United States and, yes, France.

The amazing denouement in Lebanon suggests that the Bush administration may have learned some lessons from the turmoil of postwar Iraq, however loath the president may be to admit it. Senior administration officials privately explain that their strategy for Lebanon has been to maintain a low-key American role and let the U.N. mediator, Terje Roed-Larsen, do the talking. The fact that nearly 150,000 U.S. troops were nearby in Iraq obviously provided leverage, but this hard military power reinforced the softer diplomatic approach, rather than substituting for it.

Nobody could have scripted the chain of events that led to Tuesday's departure of the last of the Syrian troops. It's a story of Syrian blunders, Lebanese resolve and a surprisingly tough stance against Damascus by other Arab nations. The Lebanese independence movement was galvanized by the murder of Lebanon's former prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, but it had staying power because it represented Lebanese yearning for change.

The diplomatic process that led to Syrian withdrawal began last June, with a meeting in Paris. U.S. and French officials discussed intelligence reports that the Syrians might try to force a change in the Lebanese constitution to allow their hand-picked president, Emile Lahoud, to remain in office. French-American relations were still raw over Iraq, but the two countries worked together to draft a U.N. resolution calling for Syrian withdrawal.

The United States had its hands full in Iraq, so the French took the lead in rounding up support for what became Security Council Resolution 1559. The resolution passed in August; the Syrians defied growing international pressure and imposed Lahoud for another term. Hariri and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who previously had accommodated the Syrian occupation, moved into open opposition. The Syrians made threats against the two, but they didn't back down.

Hariri was killed Feb. 14 by a massive car bomb in the center of the sparkling new downtown Beirut he had helped rebuild. To Lebanese, it seemed a classic Syrian move -- an attack so blatant and audacious that it would silence any opposition. But this time, the Lebanese weren't intimidated. They demanded an international investigation of Hariri's death and withdrawal of the Syrian army. If the Syrians plotted Hariri's death, and that isn't proved, it was a colossal mistake.

Lebanon and Syria now offer two new fronts in the broader battle for political change in the Arab world. In Lebanon, U.S. and European aid will be crucial in keeping a fractious coalition together through next month's elections. A new Lebanon would be a model for the secular, multiethnic democracy that is proving so difficult to establish in Iraq. But without a strong Lebanese army and a gradual disarmament of the Shiite militia Hezbollah, this new Lebanon will be stillborn.

What's ahead in Syria is even more intriguing. Intelligence analysts aren't sure whether President Bashar Assad is an inept bungler, or whether he really has a plan for change in Syria and will use the Lebanon disaster as an opportunity. A big conference of the Baath Party is scheduled for June, and Syrians say Assad has been signaling that he will use it to end one-party rule and allow greater freedom.

Is Assad sincere about these changes? Is he politically powerful enough to pull them off? Fasten your seat belts for the next wild ride on the Mideast roller coaster.

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