The United States yesterday rejected Syria's announcement of a gradual withdrawal of its troops from Lebanon as inadequate and charged that Damascus is defying a U.N. resolution, as well as demands from the international community and its own Middle East allies.
In unusually sharp language, the White House said President Bashar Assad's "half measures" were "not enough." Rather than make a phased pullout with a vague timeline, Damascus must withdraw "completely and immediately" all its military forces and intelligence agents, White House spokeswoman Erin Healy said.
Syrians voice their support for Syrian President Bashar Assad as pressure mounts for the country to withdraw its troops from Lebanon.
(Khaled Al-hariri -- Reuters)
The Bush administration also warned that Syria will have to account for its actions. "The world is watching the situation in Lebanon, particularly in Beirut, very closely," Healy said.
"The world will hold the governments of Lebanon and Syria directly accountable for any intimidation, confrontation or violence directed against the people of Lebanon, and we have made this clear to both governments. The United States and the world stand with the people of Lebanon at this critical moment," she added.
Washington is increasingly concerned that the showdown over Syria's 30-year military presence in Lebanon, triggered by the assassination last month of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, will spark new violence in an effort by Damascus or its allies to divert attention -- or to try to prove the need for Syrian troops. Syria first deployed forces there in 1976 in an unsuccessful bid to end Lebanon's civil war. It has refused to pull out despite a 1990 peace pact that included a call for Syria to leave.
A senior State Department official said the Syrian leader is again only toying with the international community. "Our experience with Assad is that he does the minimum, and this time he seems to be trying to get away with the minimum," he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of ongoing diplomacy.
Assad's pledge to coordinate with the government in Beirut has no credibility because Syria "appointed or manipulated into power" Lebanon's government, he added. "That doesn't build confidence."
The White House made clear that Syrian troops must be out of Lebanon before the country holds national elections this spring. The as-yet-unscheduled poll must be "free, fair and credible . . . and monitored and guaranteed by international observers," Healy said.
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, who is sending special envoy Terje Roed-Larson to Syria and Lebanon later this week, has said he hopes Syria will pull out by April, when he will next report to the U.N. Security Council on Syria's compliance with Resolution 1559.
In his Saturday radio address, President Bush lauded the tens of thousands of Lebanese who have joined street protests against the murder of Hariri and 17 others. He also assailed Syria for its occupation of Lebanon, its support of terrorism and for being a "key obstacle" to a broader Middle East peace.
Noting the unity between Europe and the United States, Bush said the world is now "speaking with one voice to ensure that democracy and freedom are given a chance to flourish in Lebanon." His remarks were taped on Friday and released before Assad's speech, but U.S. officials had already predicted that Damascus would not fulfill its obligations under the U.N. resolution passed last fall.
Other nations initially were not as tough, however. France, which co-sponsored the resolution with the United States, said in a foreign ministry statement that Paris expects a pullout "as soon as possible," but Britain, Russia and the European Union said Assad's speech was a positive if incomplete first step.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has formed a task force on Lebanon to monitor the situation, a State Department official said. In the meantime, the administration is exploring how to support Lebanon's crucial elections with international observers, possibly including American and European experts.
"The Syrian and Lebanese governments need to respect the will of the Lebanese people," Healy said. "And the Lebanese must be able to express themselves free from intimidation and the threat of violence."