Syria began dismantling a number of small army posts and pulling back hundreds of troops from positions near Beirut on Tuesday after rising international pressure to end its longstanding military presence in neighboring Lebanon.
Syrian troops began removing small hilltop outposts in the villages of Damour and Aramoun, south of Beirut. The posts, which protect the southern approaches to the Lebanese capital, were originally established as a defense against an invasion by Israel. Syrian officials said the troops would be moving into the eastern Bekaa Valley, near the Syrian border.
A second stage is planned that would move troops in central and northern Lebanon toward the frontier. Under the plan, Lebanese troops are to take up many of the vacated positions.
The redeployment affected a small portion of the Syrian contingent in Lebanon -- about 1,000 of roughly 20,000 troops, but officials from both countries said it could mark the start of a broader movement and eventual withdrawal of forces that have been in Lebanon for nearly 30 years. It also appeared to signal a new willingness by the Syrian government to comply with international demands to leave Lebanon, an issue brought sharply into focus last month after Syria intervened in its neighbor's fractious domestic politics.
Under pressure from Syria's president, Bashar Assad, Lebanon's cabinet agreed late last month to extend the term of President Emile Lahoud, who was hand-picked by Syria but constitutionally required to leave office in November.
Within days, the United States joined with France to win a U.N. Security Council resolution that called on Syria to remove its troops from Lebanon, cease meddling in political affairs there and disarm groups in Lebanon that the United States has designated as terrorist organizations that Syria has supported with arms and money. A day after the resolution was approved, Lebanon's parliament amended the constitution to allow Lahoud three more years in office.
The resolution directed U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to give the Security Council an assessment of Syria's compliance within 30 days. He is scheduled to do so Oct. 2, and his report could determine what steps, if any, the council would take against Syria and Lebanon.
The redeployment, which followed several days of talks in Beirut between senior Syrian and Lebanese military officials, appeared to be a conciliatory gesture by the Syrians after weeks of denouncing the resolution as interference in Syrian-Lebanese affairs. Officials from both countries said the troop movements did not amount to a withdrawal, although they said they might eventually lead to the return of some troops to Syria.
"Lebanon is continuing its coordination with Syria in this and other fields to serve the interests of the two countries and two peoples," Lebanon's defense minister, Mahmoud Hammoud, told reporters in Beirut.
Syria first sent troops to Lebanon in 1976 in an unsuccessful attempt to calm mounting sectarian violence, and at times had as many as 35,000 troops in the country. The 1989 Taif Agreement that ended Lebanon's civil war gave Syria two years to withdraw its troops from the time Lebanon incorporated the terms of the accord in its constitution, a deadline that lapsed in September 1992.
Many Lebanese and Syrian officials say the Syrian soldiers have helped Lebanon emerge from its civil strife. But a growing number of Lebanese believe that, after more than a decade of relative stability, the time has come for Syria to end a military presence that has made it the most potent political force in Lebanon.
Although Syria has redeployed its forces in Lebanon several times in recent years, Lebanese political analysts said that doing so under international pressure made Tuesday's pullback the most significant to date. Farid Khazen, chairman of the political science department at the American University of Beirut, said the fact that this redeployment is occurring under U.N. scrutiny is more significant than its size.
"Of course, this should have happened back in 1992," Khazen said. "Even though there were partial deployments before, today they come under completely different circumstances. This is no longer a Lebanese issue or a Syrian issue, but an international issue."