In talks with a top U.N. envoy, Syria promised yesterday to withdraw one-third of its 15,000 troops and 5,000 intelligence agents in Lebanon by the end of March, as the first stage of an operation that would end its 29-year military presence in that country, according to U.S. and U.N. sources.
Under strong pressure from the United States, Europe, Arab governments and anti-Syrian street protests in Lebanon, President Bashar Assad also pledged to move all remaining military and intelligence assets into Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley by the end of the month. In addition, he vowed to shut down Syria's intelligence headquarters in the capital, Beirut, by April 1. Syrian intelligence services have played a critical role in manipulating Lebanese political life.
Syrian soldiers haul bags during redeployment to Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, near the Syrian border. President Assad pledged a partial pullout by month's end.
(Kevin Frayer -- AP)
A joint Lebanese-Syrian military commission will then meet on April 7 to determine the date of the final withdrawal of all forces, according to Western sources familiar with the negotiations.
U.S. officials welcomed the move but expressed deep concern about Syria's failure to provide a final pullout date. The United States will insist that the second stage brings "a complete and prompt withdrawal," a senior administration official said yesterday, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations.
U.S. intelligence noted significant movements by Syrian troops Friday out of Lebanon's coastal areas, particularly in the north, U.S. officials said. The Associated Press reported that an initial convoy of eight buses carrying hundreds of Syrian troops crossed the border into Syria yesterday. More than 60 military trucks left Lebanon as well, it said.
After lengthy talks at Assad's family home in Aleppo, Syria, U.N. special envoy Terje Roed-Larsen said in a telephone interview from Beirut that he had received "a firm commitment" for a two-stage withdrawal that would end Syria's long role as the dominant political and military influence in the affairs of its smaller neighbor.
Roed-Larsen called the talks "very constructive" and said he was "much encouraged" by Assad's pledges. "The president has committed to withdraw from Lebanon all Syrian troops and intelligence from Lebanon in fulfillment of Security Council Resolution 1559," he said.
The United States and France co-sponsored the U.N. resolution last fall after Syria maneuvered to keep its ally, Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, in office for three more years after his constitutional term limit had expired. The United States has long opposed Syrian influence in Lebanon.
The Feb. 14 assassination in Beirut of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, who resigned in protest and began mobilizing a new anti-Syrian opposition force inside Lebanon, galvanized foreign pressure to enforce the resolution.
The United States is prepared to accept a withdrawal in phases but will not tolerate any "dilatory lingering," the administration official said. Washington will reserve judgment on Assad's pledge until it sees further action and proof of Syria's full withdrawal, given past broken promises from Damascus. Syria failed to comply with the 1989 accord that ended Lebanon's 15-year civil war and that called for the departure of Syrian forces. The troops had been sent to Lebanon in 1976 to try to end the war.
Syria's long history of meddling in Lebanon's government could undermine the joint commission that is negotiating the final withdrawal, U.S. officials warned.
Under the terms outlined yesterday, the first stage of Syria's withdrawal will include the relocation of all military forces and intelligence assets throughout Lebanon into the eastern Bekaa Valley, which borders Syria, in less than three weeks, Roed-Larsen said. During that period, a "significant" number of these troops and intelligence personnel will withdraw permanently into Syria. U.S. and U.N. officials later said Syria had agreed to pull out one-third of its personnel by the end of March.
The second stage will bring a "complete and full withdrawal" from the Bekaa of "all military personnel, assets and intelligence apparatus" into Syria, the U.N. envoy said. By April 1, he added, it will be clear whether Assad intends to keep his promise.
The Bush administration has expressed a desire to see all Syrian troops out of Lebanon before parliamentary elections due this spring, probably in May. If Syrian troops remain in the Bekaa during the campaign and elections, U.S. officials say, their presence may intimidate voters and influence the outcome.
Roed-Larsen's talks with Syria's young leader, who inherited power from his father in 2000, addressed only two of the major issues addressed in the U.N. resolution, the pullout of both troops and intelligence personnel. The envoy said he would continue his "dialogue" with Assad and other concerned parties to ensure full implementation of all the terms of the resolution, which include recognizing Lebanon's sovereignty and independence.
The toughest remaining issue is the dismantling and disarming of the Shiite, Palestinian and Iranian militias still operating in Lebanon, all supported or armed by Syria. Roed-Larsen's plan is to achieve agreement on the issue of Syrian troops and Lebanon's sovereignty to help ensure free and fair elections, then let a new government address the militia issue, according to a senior U.S. official.
After his talks in Damascus, Roed-Larsen traveled to Beirut for talks with Lebanese opposition leaders as well as Lahoud and Prime Minister Omar Karami, who are both allies of Syria. He is scheduled to go next to France and then to the United States, where he is to brief U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and U.S. officials.