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Top U.N. Envoy to Present Syria With Ultimatum

Nation Must Withdraw From Lebanon or Face Isolation

By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 11, 2005; Page A01

A top U.N. envoy will tell President Bashar Assad that Syria will face political and economic isolation if he does not completely and quickly withdraw from Lebanon, U.N. and U.S. officials said yesterday.

In a meeting set for tomorrow, Terje Roed-Larsen plans to inform Syria that the international community is united in insisting that Damascus comply with U.N. Resolution 1559 -- and is prepared to impose wide punitive sanctions if it does not act quickly, the officials said.

Syrian soldiers dismantle a military position during a continuing redeployment of troops near Falougha, east of Beirut. (Kevin Frayer -- AP)

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"If he doesn't deliver, there will be total political and economic isolation of his country. There is a steel-hard consensus in the international community," a senior U.N. official said.

In preparation for the diplomatic confrontation, Roed-Larsen has met over the past week with top U.S., European and Arab officials to determine the positions and parameters of action. In a final round of talks, he met yesterday with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and also won backing from the Arab League in talks with its secretary general, Amr Mousa, earlier this week -- discussions aimed at leaving Syria no political escape routes, the source said.

The U.N. official said Roed-Larsen had found "remarkable" support for a tough showdown with Assad. The fury over Syria's domination of Lebanon for almost three decades erupted quickly after the Feb. 14 assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, who had resigned to protest Syria's political manipulation last fall to keep Lebanese President Emile Lahoud in power three years beyond the constitutional limit.

The timing of Hariri's death, apparently by a car bomb that killed 17 others, happened amid a new U.S. and European effort to promote democracy in the Middle East. Hariri, who led a growing opposition movement, had ties to top U.S., U.N., French and Saudi officials, many of whom now champion Lebanon as a top priority.

Roed-Larsen will tell Assad that he must take four steps, U.S. and U.N. officials say.

First, Syria must honor the independent sovereignty of Lebanon and not undermine its spring elections for a new parliament. Roed-Larsen "will imprint on everybody that there is a united demand from the international community for free and fair elections" that will include international observers, the U.N. source said.

Second, Assad must provide a complete timeline for a full pullout of troops. The international community will accept "sequencing," or a phased withdrawal, but it must be expeditious, the source said.

Third, Damascus must provide a timeline for the pullout of 5,000 intelligence agents in Lebanon.

Finally, Roed-Larsen will discuss other requirements in Resolution 1559, including the need to disarm and dismantle foreign and domestic militias operating in Lebanon, all of which Syria supports, U.N. and U.S. officials said. But the United Nations is prepared to wait until after the election to allow a new Lebanese government to deal with the militia problem.

"Clearly the presence of Syrian forces and Syrian intelligence agents is incompatible with a fully fair election, untainted by outside interference. And that's the basis of 1559," State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli said yesterday.

The impact of extensive sanctions on Syria could be devastating, U.S. experts and oil analysts said

"They're very, very worried about being isolated," said Theodore H. Kattouf, former U.S. ambassador to Syria. "Syria's economy is weak. It has a strong overlay of socialism and the limited capitalism is beset by cronyism and corruption. In the past, Syria has always had an economic savior, be it subsidies from the Gulf, free oil from Iran in the 1980s, large payments of gratitude from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait for [military] participation in the first Gulf War [against Iraq], incredibly cheap oil from Saddam Hussein. So there was always someone to bail out Syria. Plus, there were all the years of cheap military equipment from the Soviet Union.

"When you look around now, who will bail out Syria's economy? The impact of isolation would further weaken a weak economy, lower living and thereby increase popular discontent," he added.

Syria was worried enough about being isolated after the U.S. Congress passed the Syrian Accountability Act -- which called for punitive steps against Damascus -- that it hastily concluded an economic cooperation agreement with the European Union to have a lifeline, Kattouf said.

Comprehensive sanctions have rarely been imposed by the United Nations or large groups of nations. Among the few countries to face widespread economic embargoes and diplomatic sanctions were Iraq during the final decade of Hussein's rule, North Korea, Libya and Iran during the drawn-out drama after the U.S. Embassy takeover from 1979 to 1981.

Iraq survived the most stringent U.N. sanctions because it sold oil illegally -- including to Syria. "But that would be more difficult for Syria because it doesn't have the same kind of middleman arrangements or pipelines, and everyone knows Lebanon doesn't produce crude so you can't export [Syrian crude] through Lebanon," said Jamal Qureshi, an oil market analyst at PFC Energy.

At a high point in the mid-1990s, Syria produced about 550,000 barrels of oil per day, but now produces about 400,000, and most of it is for domestic consumption, he added. Syria exports about 150,000 barrels a day for an income of $200 million a month, a major source of badly needed foreign exchange for Syria. "If you could get U.N.-imposed sanctions, rather than just U.S. sanctions, then it would certainly hurt Syria," Qureshi said.

Roed-Larsen will also travel to Lebanon first in a symbolic move before the Syrian stop to pay respects to Hariri's family. After his talks in Damascus, he will return to Beirut to meet Lahoud and Prime Minister Omar Karimi, who are aligned with Syria, as well as key leaders of the Lebanese opposition, U.N. officials said.

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