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Last Syrian Soldiers Depart Lebanon

With Few Observers And Little Fanfare, Long Occupation Ends

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 27, 2005; Page A18

MASNAA, Lebanon, April 26 -- The last Syrian soldiers slipped out of Lebanon on Tuesday in a convoy of flatbed trucks, buses and jeeps, ending a 29-year deployment that began during the civil war and ended with only scant acknowledgment from opponents of the long military presence.

The column rounded a bend on the highway to the border crossing here in the early afternoon, passing a large contingent of Lebanese army troops and a smaller cluster of civilians gathered to witness a moment of history. The last few hundred Syrian soldiers, from a force that once numbered 40,000, waved through dusty bus windows or chanted "God, Syria, Bashar" from the backs of camouflage trucks, a reference to Syria's president, Bashar Assad.

One of the final busloads of Syrian soldiers departs Lebanon, cheering and waving flags as they cross into their home country. (Bassem Tellawi -- AP)

The last bus crossed the border at 1:45 p.m., disappearing into the mountain pass; a larger, more joyful Syrian crowd awaited the troops on the other side. Soon after, U.N. jeeps and trucks ferrying armored personnel carriers pulled into the area. The United Nations, which demanded the Syrian withdrawal in a resolution passed last September, must verify that all Syrian soldiers and intelligence agents have left the country.

"We were used to them, and they were used to us," said Ali Abdel Fatah, 43, watching from a plastic chair as the convoy passed through the crossing. "We'll always be neighbors and friends."

The orderly departure of Syrian troops concluded months of political tumult in Lebanon sparked by the Feb. 14 assassination of Rafiq Hariri, the popular former prime minister who had been aligning himself with the country's anti-Syrian political opposition. Many here blame Syria's intelligence agencies for Hariri's death, and the United States, France and several Arab countries began pressuring Syria's ruling Baath Party to end its domineering role in Lebanon. Even after the last Syrian soldier crossed the border, however, an unknown number of Syrian intelligence agents remained in Lebanon.

Even if the troop departure was a key moment in Lebanese history, it received little attention from many Lebanese, especially those in the seaside capital of Beirut, 40 miles west of this border outpost. The lack of a large celebration appeared to indicate that much of Lebanon's opposition had already turned its attention to parliamentary elections scheduled for next month. The movement's Christian, Sunni Muslim and Druze leaders are increasingly confident the voting will shift the balance of power away from Syria's numerous allies in parliament.

The day began with military pageantry at the Riyaq Military Base in the eastern Bekaa Valley, where about 200 Syrian and Lebanese religious, political and military leaders had gathered on a warm morning. The hour-long ceremony was designed as an expression of gratitude to Syria's army, which had been invited to enter Lebanon in 1976 in an effort to end burgeoning sectarian strife. Senior military officials from both countries pledged to abide by mutual defense agreements signed 14 years ago at the end of Lebanon's civil war.

"No force will be able to change our geography or our common struggle over time," Gen. Michel Suleiman, the head of Lebanon's army, said in a brief speech.

But there were also hints of bitterness from Gen. Ali Habib, the head of Syria's armed forces, who declared that the final troop withdrawal brought his country in compliance with a U.N. resolution pushed through last fall by the United States and France. Habib said Syria "always complies with Security Council resolutions and always will," suggesting that a different standard applied to its longtime foe, Israel, which Syria battled in the Bekaa Valley and in Beirut following Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

A U.N. resolution requiring Israel to withdraw from territory it captured in the 1967 Middle East war -- including Syria's Golan Heights -- in exchange for guarantees from Arab neighbors of Israel's right "to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries" has been unfulfilled. Neither Syria nor Lebanon has diplomatic relations with Israel, although some Lebanese opposition leaders favor taking steps to establish them now that Syrian troops have departed.

"It is the right of every person in this region to question why so much pressure was applied against Syria when many other U.N. resolutions have been ignored," Habib said. "But all of this pushing will not keep Syria from being true to its principles."

Following the ceremony, which included an exchange of military medals and the dedication of a memorial to Syrian soldiers who died in Lebanon, hundreds of troops piled into buses and trucks for the half-hour ride to the border. They passed the Lebanese town of Aanjar, where Syria's intelligence headquarters is being dismantled under military guard. Then the convoy rose into the hills, brushed with green this time of year, that mark the frontier.

Other than curious shopkeepers, only a few dozen Lebanese arrived to watch the soldiers leave. Some waved Lebanese flags. Other held banners aloft pledging support for Saad Hariri, Rafiq Hariri's son, who recently announced his candidacy in parliamentary elections in May. After the final bus passed, the group smashed a large ceramic jar, following a bit of Arab folk wisdom that says the best way to keep an unwanted guest from returning is to break a piece of pottery after he leaves.

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