After 29 Years, Syrians Go Quietly

Syrian soldiers, displaying a picture of President Bashar Assad, head toward the border on the eve of the official end of Syria's military presence in Lebanon.
Syrian soldiers, displaying a picture of President Bashar Assad, head toward the border on the eve of the official end of Syria's military presence in Lebanon. (By Afif Diab -- Reuters)
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, April 26, 2005

RIYAQ, Lebanon, April 25 -- Crouching over a small stone pedestal amid a grove of pines, Maj. Hadi Husseini on Monday quietly marked the imminent end of Syria's nearly three-decade military presence in Lebanon. He carefully put the finishing touches on a monument he designed, simple and solemn, to memorialize the thousands of Syrian soldiers who have died in his country over the years.

"These red flowers are the symbol for blood," said Husseini, who was 9 years old when Syrian troops rolled into Lebanon in 1976 at the time of a burgeoning civil war. Over the next 29 years, a period scheduled to end officially on Tuesday during a military ceremony at the army post here, at least 2,000 Syrians were killed in Lebanon.

A rough-hewn foundation stone will be set into Husseini's shrine, medals exchanged and speeches given by the heads of the Syrian and Lebanese armies. Then the last 600 Syrian soldiers, from a force that once numbered 40,000, will board trucks, buses and rickety jeeps to sweep across the border roughly 10 miles away, ending an era in the Middle East.

Husseini, a burly man from the seaside capital of Beirut, 30 miles west of this village in the Bekaa Valley, tenderly placed a sapling cedar tree at the center of the monument and planted blue, gold and pale yellow flowers around its base. "These represent all of the others in Lebanon," he said.

In the weeks since a Feb. 14 bombing killed former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, tens of thousands of Lebanese have participated in angry street demonstrations demanding an end to Syria's domination of Lebanon's political life. But as international pressure has mounted against Syria to quit Lebanon, particularly the intelligence services that many here hold responsible for Hariri's death, some Lebanese have tempered their outrage with a sense of gratitude toward the foot soldiers who served here through the 15-year civil war and for as many years after.

No one is clamoring for the Syrians to stay, and many people watched impassively as convoys of Syrian military vehicles trundled along the valley's narrow roads Monday toward the shared mountain frontier. But neither was there jubilation, especially among the senior military officers and Lebanese civilians who worked with and lived among the Syrian troops here for decades. And some Lebanese expressed frustration over the intense international pressure directed against Syria to end its domineering presence in Lebanon.

The final departure marks a retreat that was widely unexpected by Western diplomats and Lebanese officials in the days immediately following Hariri's death. Syria's military and intelligence services have almost entirely departed since then, and three of six Lebanese security chiefs have stepped aside, including Maj. Gen. Jamil Sayyed, the powerful head of Lebanon's General Security department, who announced his resignation Monday.

The Lebanese parliament, still dominated by pro-Syrian legislators, plans to pass a law this week to set general elections for the end of May. Leaders of Lebanon's anti-Syrian opposition hope the vote will change the political balance of power here and usher in a more independent government.

In the short term, the withdrawal will mean tighter borders between Lebanon and Syria, with the closing of a special access road long used by the military, Lebanese and Syrian dignitaries and well-connected smugglers to avoid the customs outpost. It will also mean import taxes on some goods moving between the two countries and a far larger responsibility for Lebanon's military in controlling this broad valley, where hashish production and opium crops flourished before Syria's arrival.

Lebanese army troops, transport trucks and armored personnel carriers massed at several key intersections around the Bekaa Valley on Monday and moved into posts recently vacated by Syrian soldiers.

But mutual defense pacts remain in place; the leaders of both countries see Israel as a common foe. Hezbollah, the armed Shiite Muslim political movement that Syria has long used as a proxy army against Israel, has so far declined to give up its formidable arsenal despite international demands that it do so. In a sign of sympathy, Hezbollah party activists placed party banners and posters on top of a pedestal that until recently held a statue of the late Syrian president Hafez Assad at the entrance to the hillside town of Baalbek.

"This was a brother army, and nobody ever complained about it," Elias Farhat, the general who heads the Lebanese army's media operation, said as he watched over the parade ground alive with high-stepping Syrian troops, military bands and ranks of Lebanese soldiers practicing for the farewell ceremony. "The complaints came over the politics. But our cooperation will continue to go on."

Farhat, 53, was a young lieutenant in 1976 when Lebanon's Christian-led government sought Syrian help in corralling fighters from the Palestine Liberation Organization, who had attained military and political power in large parts of the country. The time was far different than today, Farhat said as a light breeze rustled stands of cedars and pines around the post. The Syrian troops were welcome.

In 1982, Israeli forces poured across Lebanon's southern border to end PLO attacks on northern Israeli settlements from the Lebanese side of the frontier. Their march subsequently brought them up against Syrian forces in the Bekaa. Lebanese military officers said most of the Syrian soldiers who died here were killed in the subsequent fighting.

"Those were days of war," Farhat said. "At the time, people here were very happy with their arrival. But times change, people change, alliances change."

Syrian military trucks passed back and forth across the border Monday, arriving empty and departing laden with military hardware, office equipment and troops. Some were plastered with posters of Syrian President Bashar Assad, others simply showed the red, black and white Syrian flag.

At a small Syrian army post near Baalbek on the valley's eastern slope, several dozen Syrian soldiers dismantled the low concrete buildings that had served as barracks and offices. A handful stood atop the tin roof of one building, smashing sledgehammers into the brittle blocks until the place began to crumble. Nearby, several other buildings had been reduced to rubble.

Buses stood by to take the soldiers away, some of whom asked happily to have their pictures taken, though grim-faced commanders prohibited it.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company