Bashar al-AssadA little local difficulty in Lebanon looks as though it may be rearranging a few pawns on that most treacherous of chessboards, the Middle East. Syria, effective overlord of the country since the end of the 1975-90 Lebanese civil war, seems to have put its hand into an international hornets’ nest by imposing a three-year extension to the constitutionally prescribed six-year term of the president, Emile Lahoud. Trapped in a time-warp, the Syrian leadership appears to be sleepwalking into a confrontation not only with the US but also with the European Union, its only reliable bridge to the outside world.

Indeed Damascus appears to have pulled off the trick of reconciling the US and France – bitter antagonists over the Iraq war – who are now jointly preparing a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Syrian meddling in Lebanon and demanding it withdraw its 20,000 troops in the country. Syrian diplomacy, if that is not an oxymoron, has triumphed again.

Even before the Iraq war had ended Syria was in Washington’s sights, its Ba’athist regime considered a target for regime change by excitable elements in the Bush administration. Gone was gratitude for Syrian co-operation after 9/11 – when Damascus shared with Washington probably the world’s most comprehensive files on Islamist activists. Instead, Bashar al-Assad, the president, was accused of hiding Saddam Hussein’s imputed weapons of mass destruction – with no more evidence than for the rogue weapons’ existence.

The US then imposed sanctions on Syria, as well as keeping it on its list of state sponsors of terrorism for its support of movements such as Hizbollah and Hamas, which Damascus regards as legitimately resisting occupation. Now, however, the inexperienced Mr Assad seems to have internationalised Washington’s hitherto unilateral position – and undermined Syria’s own indefensible position in Lebanon.

The old guard around Mr Assad fears not only change, but also any upset to its lucrative extraction of corrupt rents from the mostly supine Lebanese political class. In reality, no conceivable replacement for Mr Lahoud would have challenged Syria’s paramount position in Lebanon. But imposing continuity has now ripped away even this rare semblance of electoral rotation of office in a region governed by despots.

Until Syria gets out of the way, Lebanon will not develop the national cohesion, institutional solidity and rule of law that encouragingly loud Lebanese voices are now demanding. If Damascus digs in its heels, it will and should pay a price.

Mr Assad should withdraw his diktat on extending Mr Lahoud’s term. The only way that can happen without loss of face is for the Beirut parliament to withhold the two-thirds majority needed to amend the constitution. Given that the viceroys of Damascus in Lebanon have assiduously ensured a pro-Syrian majority in parliament, that should not be impossible.