Falling short

As pro- and anti-Syrian demonstrators take to the streets of Beirut, Damascus equivocates on its withdrawal from Lebanon.

By Brian Whitaker
Published March 8, 2005 2:52PM (EST)

Prospects for an early withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon faded Monday when the countries' presidents agreed only to a partial timetable that appeared to fall well short of international demands. A pullback to the eastern part of Lebanon will be completed by the end of this month, according to Monday's agreement, but no date has been set for all the 14,000 Syrian troops to leave.

As Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, met Emile Lahoud, the Syrian-backed Lebanese president, in Damascus, Syria, tens of thousands of anti-Syrian demonstrators took to the streets of Beirut, chanting: "Freedom! Sovereignty! Independence!"

Syria and its allies in Lebanon argue that a redeployment to the Bekaa Valley complies with the 1989 Taif Accord that gave Syria a role in helping to stabilize the country after its 15-year civil war. Under the accord, an eventual full withdrawal is a matter to be agreed to between Syria and Lebanon.

This is the route that Syria is attempting, belatedly, to follow, though it faces intense international pressure for a full and immediate withdrawal in compliance with U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, which was approved last year. The United States wants all Syrian forces out of Lebanon before May, when the country is due to hold elections.

"We stand with the Lebanese people, and the Lebanese people, I think, are speaking very clearly," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan, who called the Damascus agreement a half-measure. He added: "They want a future that is sovereign, independent and free from outside influence and intimidation."

The statement from Monday's meeting in Damascus that redeployment to the Bekaa could take more than three weeks poured cold water on remarks by the Lebanese defense minister, who on Sunday said it could be completed in two or three days. Within a "maximum" of one month from the date of withdrawal to the Bekaa, a joint military committee will "define the size and duration of the presence of the Syrian forces" and "establish the relationship between these forces and Lebanese authorities," the statement said. "At the end of the agreed-upon duration for the presence of Syrian forces, the governments of Syria and Lebanon will agree on completion of the withdrawal of the remaining Syrian forces."

These arrangements have done little to clarify the likely time frame. In theory the process could be quite short, but it could also drag on until after the elections in May.

Although a former Lebanese general, Michel Aoun, an exiled anti-Syrian figure, dismissed the plans as "maneuvering to win time," some initial movement by the Syrian military was evident Monday. In the Lebanese mountain towns of Hamana, Mdairij, Soufar and Aley, Syrian troops were dismantling communications equipment and loading personal belongings and military gear onto military lorries, witnesses said. Some lorries with equipment and a few dozen soldiers from several positions then headed toward the border. Other soldiers stayed behind. Lebanese army troops in lorries waited near a Syrian military post at Dahr al-Wahsh, east of Beirut, as the Syrian troops prepared to leave, witnesses told Reuters.

The estimated 50,000 to 100,000 people who gathered in Martyrs' Square at lunchtime were more than double the size of the demonstration a week earlier that helped to bring down the Syrian-backed government of Prime Minister Omar Karami. Waving red and white Lebanese flags and with music blaring from loudspeakers, they marched to the spot where the former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, was assassinated on Feb. 14, an atrocity that has been widely blamed on Syria. At one point the marchers, 15 or 20 deep, filled the length of the route. Onlookers waved flags from balconies.

On Tuesday Hezbollah, the Shiite organization backed by Syria and Iran, is due to hold a rival rally in central Beirut to "thank" Syria for helping Lebanon. Some of Monday's marchers thought that Hezbollah, whose leader, Hassan Nasrallah, on Sunday announced plans for the rally, might muster an even larger crowd. "They are very organized, in a different sort of way," said Laila, a 19-year-old student.

Although Hezbollah does not directly oppose a Syrian withdrawal, it is affected by another part of Security Council Resolution 1559, which calls for the dismantling of all militias in Lebanon.

Some Lebanese fear that as pro- and anti-Syrian rivalries emerge on the streets there could be violence, especially if a withdrawal is prolonged. On Sunday night one person was injured when pro-Syrian gunmen opened fire in Beirut for the second night running.

Brian Whitaker

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