The Bush administration, which now believes Syria is under so much international pressure that its withdrawal from Lebanon is virtually inevitable, has begun scrambling to identify concrete steps the United States and its allies can take to meet two challenges, officials said.
The first problem is how to ensure stability in Lebanon after a Syrian departure. The second concern is what such a pullout would do to the government in Damascus, including the possibility of instability inside Syria in response to the loss of Lebanon. That could add a new dimension of trouble in an already volatile region, U.S. officials say.
President Bush yesterday adamantly rejected any attempt by Syria to craft a compromise that would include withdrawal of some but not all of Syria's 15,000 troops -- an approach diplomats expect President Bashar Assad to announce today.
"When the United States and France and others say withdrawal, we mean complete withdrawal -- no half-hearted measures," Bush said at a New Jersey stop to promote his ideas for Social Security. "Syrian troops and Syrian intelligence services must get out of Lebanon now. . . . We want democracy in Lebanon to succeed. And we know it cannot succeed so long as she is occupied by a foreign power."
But a full and immediate withdrawal could create new issues -- and problems -- in both Lebanon and Syria, U.S. officials acknowledge. "There's a growing consensus that we have the Syrians boxed in and they have no option but to pull out their troops and, hopefully, intelligence," said a senior U.S. official, who sought anonymity because of the delicate diplomacy. "The question is: What happens next -- on Lebanon stability, and do we have to worry about Assad's regime? There's the potential for huge turmoil."
In Lebanon, the United States fears the Lebanese army is not strong enough to exert and maintain control over the entire country, particularly since Hezbollah, or Party of God, controls much of southern Lebanon, U.S. officials say.
In Syria, the main issue being probed is whether any decision by Assad to withdraw from Lebanon -- which many in Damascus have always considered to be part of greater Syria -- will have political fallout at home. "Can this imperil the Assad regime? The question is now out there, given the number of missteps," the senior U.S. official said.
Assad inherited power after the death of his father, Hafez Assad, in 2000 and still depends on many of his father's aides in senior intelligence, military and government positions. "You can envision the old guard seeing the young guy making missteps," the official said.
U.S. intelligence has long considered Assad to be an "ineffective" leader who does not have total control over his military and security forces, but Washington has been unable to "game," or confidently predict, what might happen inside Syria, a second U.S. official said.
The United States is hoping to find answers and set into motion steps that will ensure Lebanon is stable enough to hold free and fair national elections this spring that will not be "contaminated" by Syria's presence, a senior State Department official said. The issues are being discussed among key U.S, European and Arab players, with expectations that proposals may be made through the United Nations next month.
Terje Roed-Larsen, special U.N. envoy for Lebanon, held several hours of talks here yesterday, including meetings with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and with national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley, to explore ideas and options, U.S. and U.N. officials said.
Larsen will hold similar talks early next week in Europe, then Egypt and Jordan, before arriving in Syria on March 12. If Assad does not agree today to pull out all troops, Larsen is to carry a tough message, U.S. and European officials said. He is due to report back to the Security Council on April 19 on Syria's compliance.
To address Lebanon's future, the United States and Europe are exploring what kind of international security presence could help ensure Beirut does not disintegrate into the kind of civil war that devastated the country between 1975 and 1990, U.S. and European officials say.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said yesterday that international peacekeeping forces might be used. "It is possible that as part of the phased withdrawal from Lebanon by Syria -- it has to be swift but phased -- there could be some more peacekeeping troops," Straw said.
One option the United States is considering is how the U.N. force that has been deployed along Lebanon's border with Israel since 1978 could be used to help fill the security void in the area dominated by Syria, according to U.S. and European officials. By coincidence, U.N. Resolution 1583 renewed the force's mandate in January, with language allowing the mission to be altered or expanded, U.S. and U.N. officials say.
Already overstretched in the Middle East, the United States does not want to take ownership of the solution or contribute personnel, officials said. The administration is also aware that the last U.S. peacekeeping effort in Lebanon in the early 1980s included a suicide bombing that killed 241 Marines, the largest loss of U.S. military life in a single incident since World War II.
But France does not support the use of the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon, or UNIFIL, the French Foreign Ministry said yesterday.
"UNIFIL had a very specific mandate, and there shouldn't be any conflation of the two operations, which are part of different perspectives, different frameworks," a Foreign Ministry spokesman told reporters.