AMMAN, Jordan, March 4 -- In a rare address to parliament on Saturday, Syrian President Bashar Assad intends to outline plans to pull back thousands of Syrian troops in Lebanon to a region near the two countries' common border before Lebanese parliamentary elections this spring, according to diplomats in Syria and members of the Lebanese opposition.
But the sources said Assad's speech, coming at a time of growing international pressure on him to end Syria's three-decade presence in Lebanon, will likely not include a timeline for the removal of all 15,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon or of the country's pervasive intelligence services there.
Syrian soldiers unload a supply truck at a base in central Lebanon. President Bashar Assad is expected to signal a pullback of some troops to eastern Lebanon, near the border.
Members of Lebanon's political opposition, as well as the Bush administration and the French government, have made clear that a timeline for complete withdrawal of troops and intelligence agents is necessary to end the anti-Syrian uprising that has broken out on the streets of Beirut, the Lebanese capital. The protests helped topple the government of prime minister Omar Karami this week, though Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, who was handpicked by Syria, is working to assemble a new cabinet to manage the country through the May elections.
Assad's expected pledge, as outlined by diplomats who have been briefed on its likely content and Lebanese opposition leaders, essentially meets the terms of the 1989 peace accord that ended Lebanon's 15-year sectarian civil war. Under that agreement, Syria was to have withdrawn its troops to the eastern Bekaa Valley within two years of its signing and consult with the Lebanese government on how to accomplish the withdrawal without endangering the fragile peace.
Speaking in Russia, Syria's deputy foreign minister, Walid Mouallem, said he had told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that Syrian and Lebanese leaders had agreed on a plan to carry out those terms. "You will hear details of this plan soon," he said, apparently referring to Assad's scheduled address.
Many Lebanese opposition leaders and U.S. officials have warned Syria that meeting the terms of the peace agreement is no longer enough. But several opposition leaders said Friday that Assad could meet the spirit of their demands if his address contained specific timelines for a full troop withdrawal from Lebanon and a pledge to dismantle the intelligence services, which many Lebanese blame for the Feb. 14 assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri in Beirut. Assad is expected to announce that he will discuss a complete withdrawal with the Lebanese government that emerges after the spring elections.
"A lot of this depends on how the statement is made," said Ghattas Khoury, a member of the Lebanese parliament associated with the political bloc once run by Hariri. "If it comes as a clear pledge that he is withdrawing to the Bekaa with the intelligence services, and makes clear withdrawal is to come, that may be enough."
But Khoury added that, given Lebanon's importance to Assad's political standing at home, he did not expect to hear the Syrian president announce a full withdrawal. "I find it hard to imagine he will stand up in front of parliament and say he is leaving," Khoury said, "but I hope I am wrong. In any event, it won't be easy for him to stay in Lebanon anymore."
For many in Damascus, Syria's capital, and in Beirut, Assad's speech recalls another historic moment in the two countries' long history of tangled relations.
Assad's father, President Hafez Assad, addressed parliament in 1976 to explain his decision to dispatch Syrian troops to Lebanon at the request of the country's beleaguered Christian-led government, largely to blunt the growing influence of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Assad said he had acted to prevent a broader civil war next door.
Bashar Assad, an ophthalmologist by training, essentially inherited the presidency on his father's death in June 2000 and has been trying to consolidate his hold over Syria's ruling Baath Party ever since. Now he is facing perhaps even greater pressure than his father, and his speech is being viewed by many in the region as the coda to the era that began with his father's parliamentary address nearly three decades ago.
The speech was announced Friday, only hours after Assad met in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, with Crown Prince Abdullah, who urged him to withdraw from Lebanon as soon as possible. Saudi Arabia hosted the peace conference in the city of Taif that ended Lebanon's civil war and exerts often decisive financial and political influence in Lebanon. Russia, a traditional ally of Syria, has also joined calls that Assad withdraw from Lebanon, although it warned that doing so too quickly could result in renewed sectarian strife.
Lebanon has served Syria as a place to exert its regional military clout and wage proxy war against Israel and, most recently, as an economic safety valve. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians work in Lebanon, mostly in menial jobs, and the country is a convenient place to buy high-tech items barred for sale in Syria under U.S. sanctions imposed last year.
Assad is not expected to address the status of Hezbollah, the armed Shiite political movement that Syria and Iran support in southern Lebanon. The U.N. Security Council called on Syria last year to withdraw its forces from Lebanon and disarm Hezbollah, a legal political party in Lebanon with an armed wing that battled the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon for nearly two decades. The Bush administration considers Hezbollah, which controls 12 seats in Lebanon's 128-seat parliament, a terrorist organization.
Even a relatively rapid pullback of Syrian troops to the Bekaa would be unlikely to appease the Bush administration or many Lebanese opposition leaders, who express fear that any Syrian presence in the country during the May elections would undermine a free and fair vote.
"What was good 15 years ago, under a scenario that included the occupation of southern Lebanon, is not good enough today," said Nayla Mouawad, a Maronite Christian member of parliament who is active in the opposition. Assad's "promises must include a clear promise and timeline to leave Lebanon completely," Mouawad said. "We will not trust them otherwise."