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Syrian Troop Deal Exposes Festering Lebanese Resentments

In Bekaa Valley, Soldiers Impose A Daily Burden

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 8, 2005; Page A10

MEXEH, Lebanon, March 7 -- Bassel Meiss is the third generation of his family to farm a modest parcel of land on the edge of this village, which sits over snow-crowned mountains from the seaside capital of Beirut. But his family's property has shrunk during his lifetime, and at least 15 acres now represent another occupied patch of the Middle East.

When thousands of Syrian troops arrived in Lebanon three decades ago, several hundred of them built a collection of concrete buildings on a corner of Meiss's plum and peach orchard. At least 450 soldiers remain there today behind barbed wire and watchtowers, and many more may soon arrive under an agreement announced Monday to concentrate the 15,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon within the Bekaa Valley by the end of the month.

(Seth Wenig--Reuters)

_____From Damascus_____
Video: The presidents of Syria and Lebanon announced that Syrian troops will start a pullback to the Bekaa Valley.

"These people will never leave," said Meiss, 47, ruddy from years of farming in this village east of Beirut. "They are eating everything here, from the brown grass to the green. Watch. It will be us who will have to leave."

In the three weeks since a car bomb killed former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, who opposed Syria's involvement here, many Lebanese have intensified their opposition to the presence of Syrian troops as an affront to the country's sovereignty. The most visible campaign has been in Lebanon's cities, voiced by the political class that has suffered assassinations and threats from Syrian intelligence agencies over the years. But here in the Bekaa Valley, Syria's deep reach has long been a daily burden, variously irksome and frightening to thousands of Lebanese eager to see it end but skeptical it ever will.

In announcing the troop redeployment after a meeting in Damascus, the Syrian capital, Presidents Bashar Assad of Syria and Emile Lahoud of Lebanon left open the date for the more significant shift of Syrian forces to the countries' shared frontier. That leaves unclear whether Syrian forces would be withdrawn to the border before Lebanon's parliamentary elections scheduled for the spring. Lebanese opposition leaders see the vote as their best hope for ushering in a government less beholden to Syria. Rallying in downtown Beirut, thousands of people cheered as opposition leaders denounced the troop agreement as a Syrian trick to delay a pullout.

The agreement marked another tentative step toward an end to Syria's three-decade presence in Lebanon, a move fueled in part by a U.N. Security Council resolution last year calling for a Syrian withdrawal. Hundreds of Lebanese soldiers packed into army buses headed toward the Bekaa Valley along the main highway linking Beirut and Damascus to ensure a trouble-free redeployment. Lebanese troops were posted every 300 yards along the 45-mile stretch of road that runs through the Bekaa, a place that has bitterly, if silently, tolerated a heavy Syrian presence for years.

In interviews, many Sunni and Shiite Muslims and Christians in the valley said they had lost income and property -- as well as friends who sought better job opportunities overseas -- as a result of what they describe as Syria's occupation. For thousands of Syrians living in Lebanon, the gradual development of a parallel system of preferences offers convenience and clout potentially worth fighting for.

"Pay me for it?" Meiss said of his lost land. "We just ask God every day they don't try to strike us. We don't want the military here anymore, but we can't just discard the Syrian workers. They live from us; we live from them."

The assassination of Hariri has generated Lebanon's most potent opposition movement in years and has exposed long-held Lebanese resentment toward Syria's presence. That, in turn, has frightened off many of the Syrians who had crossed the mountainous border looking for opportunity in Lebanon. Lebanese officials say 35,000 Syrian workers have fled Lebanon since Hariri's assassination, a crime that many Lebanese blame on Syrian intelligence agencies.

Meiss employs two Syrians, who on the wind-blown valley floor uproot shriveled plum trees to make way for new ones. Their value to Lebanese landowners is obvious: A Syrian man makes $4 for a five-hour shift; a Syrian woman is paid a dollar less. A Lebanese worker costs twice that, but soon may be the only option. The Pepsi bottling plant in Zahle, a city 10 miles northeast of Mexeh, is running radio advertisements seeking 1,000 Lebanese workers to fill in for recently departed Syrians.

"A Lebanese couldn't live in this country on the wages the Syrians make," said Yousef Ibrahim, who manages Meiss's crops. "But the Syrians can go back to their country where it's cheaper, and it's enough."

Georges Assaad Debline, a Maronite who runs two produce markets in the valley, says he is suffering from another form of Syrian competition. His shop on the edge of Chtaura is immaculate and lined with bins of oranges and apples, olives soaking in their oil and tanks full of live trout from a nearby river. But customers are scarce, Debline said.

Syrians bring produce over the border each day in trucks and go door to door to sell their merchandise at cut rates. "If I did this, the ISF would stop me and take my stuff," said Debline, 55, referring to Lebanon's internal security forces. "But they would never dare do this to the Syrians."

Debline also has competition from the shop next door, run by a Syrian from the coastal city of Latakia. Gracious if a little wary, Moustafa Edelbi, 27, said he hopes the redeployment eases tensions now rising throughout the valley. "This is a matter between the brothers and sisters of our countries," he said. "About politics, well, I don't like to talk about it."

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