The Syrian Army today began hauling tanks and artillery home from Lebanon in its first major troop withdrawal since Israel invaded it three years ago.
The withdrawal came just two weeks after Israel pulled out its last combat units from Lebanon, and the timing of the Syrian move carried a clear political message.
At face value, the Syrian withdrawal seemed to be indirect reinforcement for those who have argued that Syria is not seeking to use its military presence in Lebanon to force a political solution on that nation's disparate communities.
Moreover, ever since the fighting sparked by the Israeli invasion ended in 1982, Syria has insisted that the Israelis, as invaders, had to leave Lebanon unconditionally before it would agree to withdraw its own forces.
The Syrians rejected the effort of American envoys to negotiate a simultaneous withdrawal with Israel on the grounds that their presence in Lebanon had been requested by the Arab League in 1976.
Nearly 90 tank transporters were seen heading into Lebanon late this afternoon to pick up Soviet-built tanks from units of the 3rd Armored Division stationed just over the border and around the Lebanese Air Force Base at Rayak in the Bekaa Valley.
Third Division trucks pulling heavy, 130-mm Soviet-made guns drove toward Damascus along with other military vehicles.
Clearly visible, parked on side roads west of Damascus, were transporters loaded with other tracked armored vehicles.
Soon after the ground fighting between Syrian and Israeli forces in the Bekaa Valley ended in 1982, the 3rd Division, constituting the Syrian Army's strategic reserve and the only troops traditionally stationed between Damascus and Israeli forces, moved all but logistic units into back-up positions behind front-line troops.
According to foreign military publications, Syrian troop strength inside Lebanon and on the Syrian-Lebanese border has been estimated at between 30,000 and 40,000 since 1982 compared with 20,000 in the years preceding the Israeli invasion.
Trucks of the 1st Armored Division and the 10th Division, also largely committed in Lebanon, were seen driving along the main road from the Syrian border to Damascus. But it was not clear whether the Syrian Army intended to bring back part or all of those units in addition to the 3rd Division.
Despite the pullout of forces, the Syrians generally were expected to keep a sizable force both in the Bekaa Valley and in the Metn region east of Beirut where their presence provides potential strength for Syrian political policy.