For the first time in nearly 30 years, Lebanon appears on the brink of becoming an independent democracy. Following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on February 14, 2005, a wave of massive protests and international pressure demanding an end to de facto Syrian rule over Lebanon are poised to achieve success. With the April 26 withdrawal of Syria's 14,000 troops from Lebanon, the nation celebrated a turning-point in its history, but the road ahead remains challenging. Twenty-nine years of civil war and foreign occupation stand in the way of a stable democracy, and reversing the effects of this history will not be possible overnight.
Syria has held de facto control over Lebanon since 1976, when the Syrians intervened in Lebanon's then one-year-old civil war. When the civil war ended in 1990, the Taif accords established a nominally-independent Lebanese national government, but Syria declined to withdraw its 35,000 troops or its extensive network of intelligence operatives and continued to pull the strings in the Lebanese government. The primary Syrian justification for continued troop presence was the Israeli occupation of Southern Lebanon, yet even after Israel completely withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, Syria kept 14,000 troops in the country and maintained its extensive intelligence network.
Opposition to the Syrian presence in Lebanon has existed since Syrian troops first entered the country. However, until recently this opposition was limited to two of Lebanon's four dominant sects, the Christians and Druze, with the Sunni and Shiite Muslims accommodating and--in the case of the Shiites--actively supporting the Syrian presence. The turning point came in September 2004, when the Syrians pushed through the Lebanese Parliament an amendment to the Constitution upending planned Presidential elections and renewing the six-year term of pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud. Following this development, Sunni leader and former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri turned against the Syrian occupation--tipping the balance in favor of the opposition--and the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution sponsored by the United States and France demanding a complete Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon and the dismantling of all Lebanese militant groups, including the pro-Syrian Shiite Hezbollah.
Despite this sharp turn in domestic and international sentiment against their occupation, the Syrians refused to budge until the massive outcry following Hariri's assassination in February 2005. Accusing Syrian intelligence operatives and Hezbollah of being behind the assassination--an accusation Syria denies--tens of thousands of protestors spanning all of Lebanon's diverse ethnicities took to the streets to demand a Syrian withdrawal. …