If you want proof that Syrian dictator Bashir Assad is feeling his oats, look no further than yesterday’s assassination of Lebanese Cabinet member Pierre Gemayel. Mr. Gemayel, a cabinet minister and member of Lebanon’s most prominent Christian political family, was gunned down yesterday by assassins–an event that was almost certainly the work of Syrian intelligence agents. Gemayel is the sixth anti-Syrian politician murdered in Lebanon over the past two years; operatives working for Damascus are believed responsible for most, if not all, of those killings.

The event that apparently prompted Gemayel’s assassination was a recent Lebanese cabinet vote, approving a proposed U.N. tribunal into the assassination of another anti-Syria politician, former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. The 2005 murder of Hariri–which triggered Lebanon’s “Cedar Revolution”–has been linked to Syrian officials as well, although Damascus (predictably) denies any involvement. Before the cabinet vote, six Hizballah ministers submitted their resignation, in a move that was at least coordinated (if not orchestrated) by the Assad government.

Tuesday’s brazen assassination of Pierre Gemayel illustrates that Damascus is again calling the shots in Lebanon, and remains determined to crush that country’s fledgling democracy. With its on-going support for Hizballah (and the terrorist group’s victory over Israel last summer), Syria has helped create a “government within a government,” that controls key areas of Lebanon, and has an ever-expanding role in the political process. Damascus clearly hopes to restore its full dominance of Lebanese affairs, rebuilding the government around Hizballah and stooge politicians, like the current President, Emile Lahoud. Those who oppose the Syrians–namely, Lebanon’s large Christian minority–will be forced into submission, through violence, intimidation and bribery.

Sadly, those tactics will probably prove successful, since pro-western elements in Lebanon have few options for countering the influence of Syria and Hizballah. The U.S. and France expressed outrage at the Gemayel assassination, but there is no suggestion that we’ll do anything about it, other than register a sharp protest with Syrian officials. Israel, still stinging from last summer’s war with Hizballah, has no desire to go back into Lebanon unless it is provoked by the terrorists. And even a “successful” Israeli operation in the south would provide little relief from Syrian influence in Beirut. Ending Syria’s presence in Lebanon would require nothing less than regime change in Damascus, and there is no indication that Israel is prepared to take such a radical step.

Indeed, Syria apparently believes it has little to fear from its adversaries in Tel Aviv and Washington. Earlier this week, Damascus announced it would restore diplomatic relations with neighboring Iraq, a move that some in the United States have actually welcomed. Never mind that Assad’s government does not have Iraq’s best interests at heart–and that the diplomatic overture provides an opening for even more meddling. For implementation of a “redeployment” strategy in Iraq, getting the Syrians engaged is part of a desired “diplomatic solution” that actually strengthens one of the most brutal and repressive regimes in the Middle East. Damascus views the apparent shift in U.S. policies for what it is–an emerging power vaccum, one that Syria is eager to exploit. Plans for Gemayel’s assassination were probably hatched long ago, but the results of our recent election did nothing to dissuade Damascus, and may have accelerated the plot’s timetable.

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Whatever he is, Bashir Assad is no fool. Recognizing an opening when he sees one, Mr. Assad is aggressively pursuing his policies in Iraq and Lebanon, at the expense of Israel and the west. For a regime that was seemingly on the ropes after the 2005 Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, Assad’s Baathist government has made a rather remarkable–and brutal comeback–using terrorism and murder to further its aims within its sphere on influence. The apparent inability of the United States to respond is one of the great failures of President Bush and his national security team.

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