Syria has not withdrawn a significant part of its intelligence presence in Lebanon, undermining its claim yesterday to have ended its 29-year intervention in its western neighbor, U.S., European and U.N. officials said.
The international community yesterday welcomed the pullout of the last of 14,000 Syrian troops from Lebanon. But the continuing presence of covert Syrian intelligence operatives would violate the promise President Bashar Assad made to the United Nations last month to withdraw all Syrian personnel. It would also contradict a letter the Syrian government wrote to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan yesterday saying that the withdrawal was complete.
U.N. member states and the Lebanese opposition have told the United Nations that Syrian military intelligence has taken up new positions "in the south of Beirut and elsewhere, and has been using headquarters of parties affiliated with the government of Syria as well as privately rented apartments for their purposes," said a report Annan made to the Security Council and released yesterday.
The report notes that Syria and the pro-Syrian government in Beirut have denied those allegations, and it confirms that Syria closed its intelligence headquarters at Beirut's Beau Rivage hotel. But the Bush administration, which with France co-sponsored the U.N. resolution requiring Syria's pullout, said Damascus is not yet complying. "Some have left, but not all," said deputy State Department spokesman J. Adam Ereli.
Syrian intelligence is also deployed in Palestinian refugee camps and communities, some of which have suddenly grown larger, U.S. officials and Western diplomats said. One Palestinian community in the eastern Bekaa valley, which is tied to the Syrian-backed Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), is of particular concern, as are strategic locations inside the Lebanese border with Syria, Western envoys said. The PFLP is based in Damascus.
Syria's intelligence network has been its chief means of influencing Lebanese political and economic life for almost three decades. About 5,000 Syrian intelligence operatives were deployed in Lebanon, U.S. and European officials said.
The United States is counting on a new U.N. verification team sent to Lebanon this week to investigate Syria's intelligence presence and to provide "a considered judgment" that will "inform our deliberations" at the Security Council. If Syria does not comply, Washington and Paris may propose punitive steps, Ereli said.
A well-placed European envoy added: "The Syrians will be walking a tightrope for quite a bit of time to come, both within Lebanon and with the international community."
The Lebanese government told the United Nations that the withdrawal is complicated by family ties and a network of informers among Lebanese citizens, the U.N. report notes.
"In the many years the Syrians have been there, they've inserted themselves pretty deeply in Lebanon, including in intermarriage," said a senior State Department official, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject. "They've abandoned their headquarters, but they're still integrated in Lebanese society in a way that can be difficult to detect. So even though their formal presence is over, there is still a significant residual presence we need to look at."
At the same time, the State Department called the troop pullout an "important first step" in the implementation of U.N. Resolution 1559. "We think today is a historic day for Lebanon and its people," Ereli told reporters.
The next test will be the level of foreign interference in Lebanon's national elections, due in four weeks. "Is [the withdrawal] indicative . . . of better and bigger things to come? I guess the jury's still out, and it's hard to say. One would hope," Ereli said.
"We would hope that we see, obviously, elections in Lebanon that lead to a government that is not tainted by foreign interference, and we would hope that we see . . . the kind of further disbanding and disarming of militias, and the kind of stability, institutional development and broader regional prosperity," he said.
In a second flap, the new U.N. report is itself the focus of controversy because the revised text issued yesterday omitted the toughest criticism of Syria, including an assessment that its military intelligence shares responsibility for the Feb. 14 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri. His death triggered the local and international backlash that forced Syria to withdraw.
The revised text also eliminated language that said Syria "interfered with the details of government in Lebanon in a heavy-handed and inflexible manner," according to a copy of the original report obtained by The Washington Post.
Despite protests by U.S., French and British officials, Annan last week delayed the report until after Syria's military withdrawal. The envoys urged Annan not to water down the report and expressed concern yesterday that key paragraphs on Syrian and Iranian activities in Lebanon were nonetheless cut, Western diplomats said.