President Bush lashed out at Syria yesterday as his administration outlined a three-pronged strategy to increase pressure on Damascus to quickly pull its troops and intelligence services out of Lebanon.
Egypt and Saudi Arabia have joined the international effort behind the scenes and are now trying to broker a timetable for Syria to withdraw its more than 14,000 troops in Lebanon, preferably within the next two months, U.S. and European officials said. The Arab diplomatic effort is an attempt to prevent the confrontation between Syria and other countries from escalating.
Syrian President Bashar Assad is expected to hold talks today in the Saudi capital of Riyadh to discuss the proposal and his plans, a State Department official said.
Bush warned yesterday that the world is now "speaking with one voice when it comes to making sure that democracy has a chance to flourish in Lebanon and throughout the Middle East."
As one prong of its strategy, the administration is raising its own voice publicly against Syria's three-decades-long domination of Lebanon in daily statements from the president and top officials, while sending stern diplomatic messages behind the scenes through U.S. envoys to Damascus. The White House is also making clear it is prepared to consider new sanctions against Damascus if it does not respond.
Lebanon has rapidly become a centerpiece of the Bush administration's effort to promote democracy in the Middle East -- as Syria has increasingly become the target of U.S. scorn and pressure. Stephen A. Seche, the deputy in charge of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, delivered a tough message to the Syrian government Tuesday, U.S. officials said.
Collaboration with European allies is the second prong of the U.S. strategy. Bush, appearing yesterday at Anne Arundel Community College, applauded a new joint U.S.-French effort that he said declared "loud and clear to Syria: You get your troops and your secret services out of Lebanon." The effort was announced in London on Tuesday by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier.
U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larsen is also expected to travel soon to Syria and Lebanon in an attempt to signal international unity behind demands that Syria comply with U.N. Resolution 1559. Passed last September, it calls for an end to all foreign forces in Lebanon and for free and fair elections.
The third prong of the U.S. strategy is working with Arab allies who have influence on Syria, said a senior State Department official returning with Rice from London yesterday. Egypt, which accounts for more than half the Arab world's population, and oil-rich Saudi Arabia have particular clout in dealing with Syria, U.S. officials said.
"Syria listens to them in a way that is distinct from our bilateral relations or in dealing with Europe, so it's an important element," said a second senior U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive diplomacy. "The sense we get is that everybody realizes the Syrians are digging themselves into a hole, and the point is to help them find a way to help dig themselves out. The key players in the Arab League, working in the name of the Arab League, can do that."
Syria, the official added, is now "trying to cut a deal -- do something to get out from under the pressure but not cave. You can see them poking around the edges to find a weak spot, anything less than total withdrawal."
The Arab League summit in Algeria from March 22 to 23 is also expected to take up the Syrian issue, U.S. officials say. "What we're seeing is an emerging consensus that the status quo is untenable," the senior U.S. official said. "We will be working to encourage the Arab League, including Algeria, to impress upon Syria the importance of withdrawing. Egypt and Syria are already trying to persuade Syria to leave."
The administration responded skeptically yesterday to Assad's statement to Time magazine this week that he would withdraw "maybe" within the next few months. "Neither this government nor the people of Lebanon will believe anything other than what we see with our eyes," Deputy Assistant Secretary of State David M. Satterfield told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
After a meeting in Beirut, Lebanese opposition leaders called on Assad yesterday to formally announce a date to pull out his troops. "The core of our pressing demands on the road to salvation and independence is represented by a full withdrawal of the Syrian army and intelligence from Lebanon," the opposition said in a statement.