Dictators seldom retreat without a fight. But, with help, the Lebanese may be able to overcome Syria’s despotic influence and forge an effective, functioning democracy.

Lebanon has already taken an important first step. Four rounds of parliamentary elections wrapped up June 19. That might allow the country to chart a new course after three decades of Syrian domination.

The Assad regime of Syria initially sent troops across the border in 1976, ostensibly to tamp down the violence of Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war. But once there, Syria’s military dominated Lebanon’s government, drained its economy and turned the country into a staging area for the anti-Israeli operations of its terrorist surrogates.

Last September, the United States and France pushed through U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, which called for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Lebanon. Damascus had clumsily overplayed its hand by ordering its political allies to alter the Lebanese constitution to secure an extended term for its puppet, PresidentEmile Lahoud (search). Many Lebanese increasingly resented Syria’s presence, particularly since Israel had withdrawn from southern Lebanon in 2000.

Simmering Syrian-Lebanese tensions exploded following the Feb. 14 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri (search), an increasingly vocal opponent of the Syrian presence. Many Lebanese suspect Syrian intelligence agents orchestrated the assassination -- just as the Syrians had eliminated many other independent Lebanese politicians, including President-Elect Bashir Gemayel (search) in 1982.

Hariri’s assassination united many of Lebanon’s diverse political factions and emboldened them to demand Syria’s withdrawal. Huge popular demonstrations signaled that the Lebanese would no longer tolerate Syrian occupation, and Damascus grudgingly agreed to remove its military forces from Lebanon by the end of April.

But the key to Syria’s stranglehold over Lebanese politics has been Syria’s extensive intelligence network, augmented by Syria’s handpicked proxies in the army, police, intelligence and internal security organizations. Syria’s Lebanese allies, and undoubtedly many of its plain-clothes intelligence personnel, remained behind after its uniformed troops left.

The Assad regime is unlikely to passively accept the undermining of its control over Lebanon. Syria derives up to 20 percent of its gross domestic product from Lebanon. More than one million Syrians, unable to find jobs in Syria’s stagnant socialist economy, work in Lebanon. And high-ranking Syrian officials are believed to benefit from the lucrative cross-border smuggling of illegal drugs and other contraband.

Besides, Assad is unpopular at home. The dictator leads a government dominated by Syria’s Alawite (search) minority, which comprises only about 15 percent of the population. The Damascus regime cannot afford to allow the idea of democracy to infect its own repressed citizenry. Thus the Lebanese elections are likely to be merely the beginning of an extended political struggle to purge the remnants of Syrian power from Lebanon, not the end of that struggle.

The opposition presently controls about one-third of the Lebanese parliament and expects to gain a majority after the elections. Saad Hariri, the 35-year-old son of the late prime minister, leads a coalition that scored a major victory in the first round of the elections by winning all of Beirut’s 19 seats. But the Assad regime will retain many allies in the new parliament, in part due to its 2000 gerrymander of electoral districts that boosted the electoral prospects of pro-Syrian political parties.

U.S. officials should actively try to deter Syria interference by working with France to monitor Syrian activities in Lebanon. If necessary, the U.N. Security Council should be ready to impose economic sanctions on Syria if it continues its efforts to intimidate the Lebanese.

Washington also should insist that the Hezbollah militia be disarmed, as required by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559. If Hezbollah expands its legitimacy as a political party (and it likely will increase the number of seats it controls in the new parliament), then it must be persuaded, in large part by other Lebanese, that it cannot continue to function as an armed terrorist organization.

After the elections, U.S. officials should support efforts to purge Lebanon’s army, police and other government bureaucracies of Syrian surrogates. They also need to keep an eye on the parliament. Many of the newly-elected candidates are not part of a new wave of democratic reformers, but members of the same group of traditional sectarian leaders whose bitter feuds led to the civil war that sparked Syrian intervention in the first place. The U.S. should work quietly behind the scenes to help maintain opposition unity and help build a stable national government.

Democracy building is no easy task. But if the United States and our allies remain engaged, we can help the Lebanese build a truly independent and stable democracy.

James Phillips is Research Fellow in Middle Eastern Studies at The Heritage Foundation, a leading Washington-based public policy institution.