Lebanon's beautiful Bekaa Valley is a hotbed of evil. The primary connecting link between Syria and Lebanon, the ruggedly lush valley is an important center for much of what troubles and terrifies the world: drugs, terrorists and, reportedly, weapons of mass destruction. The narrow 75 mile long corridor has, in fact, become one of the most dangerous places on earth - and not just for the chance passersby but also for the world at large. It is long past time for the Bekaa Valley to be returned to its peaceful past.
Granted, both legitimate and contraband caravans transited the Bekaa as they transported all kinds of merchandise to and from the great port of Beirut. Most of the traffic was benign enough, manufactured goods heading east from Beirut's port and agricultural products moving west towards Europe. For 20 years, however, a very different kind of traffic has developed: the Bekaa has become one of the world's most important transit, as well as refining points, for opium and its derivatives.
Earlier, in the 1960s, the place was so beautiful and close to Beirut that families would drive out for leisurely picnics in the green valley and surrounding hills, or visit the stately Roman ruins of Baalbek. No more. Syrian troops are bivouacked in the valley and people driving out from Damascus are likely to be Hezbollah terrorists. Founded and financed by Iran, and coddled by Syria, Hezbollah is dedicated to the destruction of Israel. Their fighters linger for training in the Bekaa, before heading south to the Israeli border to cause as much mischief as possible.
The Bekaa's descent into an existence far harsher than caravans and picnics could be said to have started in those same, turbulent 60s. Reporting for the Sunday Times of London during 1967's Six Day War, I drove from Beirut through the Bekaa, heading for Syria's Golan Heights, soon to fall into Israeli hands. As we paused in the center of the valley, a roar from behind us turned out to be a flight of four Lebanese Air Force Hawker-Hunter jet fighters. Moments later, swooping in from the southeast came four much faster Israeli Mirage fighters. As the Lebanese "fighters" flew overhead, the pilot in the lead aircraft "waggled" his wings in an internationally recognized peaceful salute and veered north; the lead Israeli Mirage returned the greeting and banked eastwards towards Damascus.
Since that moment of bizarre pilot politesse, things have declined precipitately. As peace unfolded in 1967 and during the rest of the decade, a flood of Palestinians surged north from the territory newly occupied by Israel. Inter-communal hostilities between Lebanese Christians and Muslims took a massive toll. Beirut was reduced to rubble. Israel invaded Lebanon from the south, followed by Syria from the east. In 1982, some 1,000 Palestinian refugees were massacred in the horrific Sabra and Chatila camps on the city's outskirts.
In October 1983, the U.S. Marines' peacekeeping encampment near the Beirut airport was truck-bombed killing 241 troops. When the remaining Marines decamped having scarcely retaliated, Arabs throughout the region decided America had no stomach for confronting the simmering discontent emanating from the tortured Palestinian-Israeli confrontation. And the discontent fed as it spread on Arabia's frustrated awareness of its own social, cultural and military foibles.
With Syria effectively in control of Lebanon and already involved in the drug trade, it was a small step to utilize the Bekaa Valley as a transit base, and another small step to set up heroin processing facilities. Indeed, units of the Syrian military have long provided the Bekaa's dirty denizens "protection" services … to protect their monetary interests in the various businesses.
It was equally easy - just another small step -- for Syria to wink at Iran sending hundreds of Hezbollah recruits for training in the Bekaa. The two countries had been on friendly terms ever since the mullahs took over in Tehran in 1979 - so much so that, in the mid-80s, thousands of Iranian women, widowed from the Iraq-Iran war, went to Damascus to seek husbands. Special hotels were designated for the ladies, who on arrival would create cash by selling a few Persian carpets and anything else of value they had been able to bring, in order to lure their Syrian sweethearts back home.
There the Bekaa Valley sat in corrupted splendor. The formerly relaxed valley had become a safe haven for the manufacture of illicit drugs and a training ground for fanatical terrorists. What could have been a more natural place for Saddam Hussein, under threat of invasion and destruction, to warehouse his WMD?
Following the end of major Operation Iraqi Freedom hostilities, Israeli intelligence began last June to investigate the possibility, and within weeks became convinced that substantial quantities of Iraqi WMD had transited Syria and were now stashed less than 15 miles from Israeli territory. So convinced were they that plans were made for offensive strikes aimed at the Bekaa and at Damascus. And then, silence.
As the Israelis were rattling their sabers, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad assured Secretary of State Colin Powell that his government was at last moving against terrorist organizations in Damascus, and they did so, for as long as it took Powell to return to Washington, DC. Then, in a classic Damascene maneuver, Syrian officials said there had been some misunderstanding and rescinded many of the concessions the American Secretary of State had a few days earlier announced had been agreed with Al-Assad. It seemed clear Powell had been hoodwinked into convincing the Israelis to stand down from their offensive posture.
As if that were not enough, credible reports place significant quantities of WMD at three clearly identified locations within Syria, transported by a company, Al-Bachaer, owned by the Al-Assad family. Nevertheless, for more than nine months, there has been nothing but silence about this most compelling solution to the mystery of what became of Saddam's WMD.
The Bekaa Valley is a fetid swamp of subversion and it is time to drain it, whether or not WMD are found there. As was the case in Iraq, there are multiple reasons to relieve Lebanon, the region and the world of the Bekaa's multiple dangers. What a victory it would be, were the heroin factories and the Hezbollah fighters removed from their cushy existence, forcefully if necessary.
Moreover, it is time to tell Bashar Al-Assad to come clean on a host of unsavory subjects, including
· revealing Iraqi WMD locations in Syria and cooperating in their disposal;
· handing over Iraqi funds held in Damascus banks;
· capturing ex-officials of Saddam's regime hiding around the country;
· closing down Syria's own WMD programs;
· withdrawing Syrian troops and ending the occupation of Lebanon.
Just as the mood in the United States has altered radically since 9/11, so has the Middle East's image of America since the end of major hostilities in Iraq. Once again, there is respect for the United States. Not affection, but respect. That respect has resulted in numerous national changes of direction towards more open societies:
Iraq: promulgation of an interim constitution as a first step to open election of representatives and writing of a permanent constitution;
Libya: discontinuance of all WMD programs and renunciation of the presidential aspirations of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi's son, Seif, groomed for 12 years to succeed his father;
Egypt: declaration by President Hosni Mubarrak that a special commission will create a democratic succession plan and simultaneous denial that his son, Gamal, groomed for 10 years to take over, was ever a candidate to succeed the man who has headed Egypt for 22 years;
Saudi Arabia: decision to hold the first democratic elections in the country's history, to fill half the seats on municipal councils, as well as increased women's rights;
Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar: announcement of plans for faster-paced democratization and more liberal women's rights.
The recently completed, corrupt elections in Iran emphasize the progress in the Arab states. Moreover, despite its venality at the polls, Iran seems to be cooperating, however reluctantly, with the civilized world regarding their nuclear development programs.
The foregoing represent significant advances in the Middle East's glacial political climate. In less than a year, seven Arab regimes have taken important steps to loosen their autocratic grips on their populations.
If it can happen in these countries, progress can surely occur in Lebanon and Syria. For the sake of peace, in the region and worldwide, it is essential that the Bekaa Valley be returned to a non-threatening condition. And for the sake of its longevity, it is critical that the Syrian government make serious efforts to cooperate with the United States in rounding up the Iraqi exiles, funds and military munitions the country harbors.