BEIRUT, March 5 -- Syrian President Bashar Assad said Saturday that he would begin pulling back his forces in Lebanon to the countries' shared border, a pledge that appeared to fall short of international demands that Syria end its tumultuous 30-year presence here.
Assad, addressing a supportive parliament in the Syrian capital of Damascus, did not specify a timeline for shifting his 15,000 troops to the eastern Bekaa Valley and then to the mountainous border region. He also did not make clear whether the soldiers would eventually be brought back inside Syria. Assad said he would consult Lebanese President Emile Lahoud -- whose term was extended by parliament last year under Syrian pressure -- on the timing of the gradual redeployment and an eventual withdrawal from the country.
Lebanese demonstrators cheer in Martyrs' Square as they watch a live broadcast of the speech given by Syrian President Bashar Assad.
(Kevin Frayer -- AP)
"We will withdraw our forces stationed in Lebanon fully to the Bekaa region and later to the Lebanese-Syrian border areas," Assad said. "Our way is the gradual and organized withdrawal."
Assad's speech came as other nations, including influential Arab countries, called for Syria to end its pervasive military and intelligence presence in Lebanon, a legacy of this country's sectarian civil war. At a time when democracy appears to be rising in Iraq, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other traditionally autocratic strongholds of the Middle East, Assad's latest defiance of U.S. demands appears designed to attract Arab support for his position and ensure his hold on power.
To many Lebanese, including hundreds of demonstrators who watched the speech on giant television screens in Martyrs' Square in central Beirut, the hour-long address represented a chilling response to the peaceful protests that began here after the Feb. 14 assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri. The crowd cheered when Assad pledged a "full" withdrawal from Lebanon, only to boo moments later when realizing the forces would remain in the country. Hours later the demonstrators thinned out, deflated.
"He's trying to play on the Lebanese nerves," said Eddy Khalil, a 21-year-old university student who attended the speech in Martyrs' Square, the main gathering point for the anti-Syrian uprising. "We can't take it anymore. They are always playing with Lebanon."
Many Lebanese blame Syrian intelligence for the bombing that killed Hariri and 16 others along Beirut's waterfront, an attack that is the focus of an international investigation under the auspices of the United Nations.
Assad, who referred several times to potential political unrest in Lebanon should Syria withdraw from the country, did not mention whether his intelligence services would be included in the redeployment plan. Lebanese troops and military vehicles appeared Saturday near some known Syrian intelligence buildings here, possibly preparing to occupy them once the Syrians leave.
Assad's speech was punctuated at various points by raucous applause from the parliament in Damascus, which is dominated by members of Syria's ruling Baath Party. In Lebanon, many opposition leaders said they were confused by Assad's reference to the eastern border, where Syrian forces have recently been digging defensive trenches, because it did not specify whether troops would remain on the Lebanese side of the frontier or return to Syria.
A Syrian cabinet minister, Bouthaina Shaaban, told the BBC that Assad intended to withdraw the Syrian troops to posts "inside Syria." But without a timeline, that pledge echoes those he has made in the past.
Syrian officials and Western diplomats say the first phase of the deployment should be complete by Lebanese parliamentary elections that must be held before the end of May. Lebanon's opposition alliance of Christian, Sunni and Druze parties -- rivals now united in the wake of Hariri's murder -- hope those elections will usher in a government less beholden to Syria.
"The dimension and geography of this redeployment remain confused," said Amin Gemayel, a former Lebanese president and a prominent figure in the anti-Syrian opposition movement. "The speech is a kind of deception because it fails to give any timeline or whether this is a withdrawal from Lebanon. We will continue our mobilization until all of our demands are met."
Assad has faced mounting international pressure following the assassination of Hariri, a self-made billionaire who was emerging as an important voice against Syria's presence here. The ambiguity of Assad's speech reflected the balance he is trying to strike with foreign and domestic audiences. One Western diplomat in Damascus called the speech "intentionally ambiguous to create alarm on everyone's part."
Syria first sent troops to Lebanon in 1976 at the invitation of the country's embattled Christian president at the outset of a 15-year civil war. But the 1989 peace accord that eventually ended the sectarian fighting called on Syria to pull back its forces to the Bekaa Valley within two years, and to consult the government of Lebanon on the terms of a final withdrawal. Syria did not pull back as promised.