It has been a year since Israel withdrew its defense forces from Lebanon, yet the Jewish state’s northern neighbor is still the only nation in the world currently under occupation.

Though Israelis were, for the most part, enthusiastic about getting out of Lebanon – and hopeful it would be a step toward peace – the pullout has proved to be an unmitigated disaster.

First of all, Syria hasn’t budged. Some 35,000 Syrian troops deny Lebanon – one of only two Middle East nations with a recent history of republican self-government – its sovereignty and freedom. In addition to the military force, Syria has encouraged the emigration of some 1 million of its citizens to Lebanon, straining the economy and altering the demographics of the country.

In addition, under Syrian control, Lebanon has become a haven for terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Osama bin Laden’s organization. It has become a major producer of heroin and other drugs.

Syrian domination has resulted in the worst imaginable human-rights abuses. People just disappear off the streets. Lebanon once boasted the freest press in the Middle East. Today, it’s gone, replaced by official and semi-official voices only.

For years, Syria used the presence of Israeli troops in southern Lebanon as an excuse to maintain its own armed forces in the country. Now Syria has run out of excuses – and that’s all they ever were. What justification is there for this continuing hegemony over a peaceful neighboring state?

None. But that doesn’t bring an end to the occupation.

Syria has occupied Lebanon since 1976. President Hafez Assad has died and his son has assumed control in Damascus. Yet there is not even the slightest indication that Syria is interested in negotiating a withdrawal – let alone proceeding in the direction of a good-faith, unilateral pullout.

We still hear much about United Nations resolutions in discussions of Middle East problems. I don’t put much stock in the U.N. or its resolutions, but why is it that we hear so little about Security Council Resolution 520, unanimously passed Sept. 17, 1982, calling for the evacuation of all non-Lebanese forces from the nation?

Worse yet, given the developments in Israel since last fall – notably the Arab uprising – it is clear that Yasser Arafat interpreted the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon as a sign of weakness. It has neither prompted Syrian good intentions, nor a willingness on the part of Arafat to negotiate seriously and in good faith.

Additionally, attacks on Israel’s northern border from Lebanese territory have only increased since the withdrawal. These attacks could not take place without the tacit support of Damascus – which rules Lebanon with an iron hand and which provides safe haven to the Hezbollah terrorists.

Now, even the port city of Haifa – the third largest municipality in Israel – is not safe from Katyusha rocket fire.

Hezbollah also has a deal with Arafat to provide training and arms to the Palestinian Authority.

Most Israelis – including Prime Minister Ariel Sharon – have made the connection between the unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon and the intifada. It has been a real education to them. But foreigners haven’t – least of all U.S. policymakers who continue to delude themselves that more Israeli concessions represent the key to peace in the Middle East.

There will be no peace in the Middle East until Syria pulls out of Lebanon. There will be no freedom nor independence for Lebanon until Syria packs its bags and goes. And there will be no withdrawal by Syria without far more pressure internationally on Bashar Assad.

The United States wields a great deal of influence. It actually still sends military aid to the faux Lebanese government. It’s time for a complete break with the old policies. It’s time to get tough with Syria.

The free Lebanese opposition is speaking out more visibly and forcefully than ever before. It must be encouraged, incubated and protected.

President Bush must break with the failed diplomatic policies of the past if he expects any Mideast breakthrough during this term. Here’s what Washington ought to demand of Syria as the cornerstone of its Middle East peace agenda:

  • fulfill the terms of the Taif Agreement in 1989, requiring Syria to leave Lebanon;

  • live up to U.N. Security Council Resolution 520;

  • halt its abuse of human rights in Lebanon;

  • stop its support of terrorist groups;

  • restore Lebanon to its structure of self-government by allowing freedom of worship and free elections;

  • aid the people of south Lebanon who face grave economic dislocation under Syrian occupation.

Bush can make Syria’s illegal occupation of Lebanon the centerpiece of international debate – and he should. He must.

Note: Read our discussion guidelines before commenting.