Out of Lebanon

Bowing to U.N. and U.S. pressure, Syria agrees to withdraw all its troops by the end of the month.

Published April 4, 2005 3:42PM (EDT)

Syria will withdraw all its troops and intelligence agents from Lebanon by April 30, U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larsen announced Sunday after talks with President Bashar Assad in the Syrian capital. This means that Damascus intends to meet the unofficial deadline for withdrawal set by Washington.

Roed-Larsen said the Syrian foreign minister, Farouq al-Shara, had informed him that "all Syrian troops, military assets and the intelligence apparatus" would be withdrawn fully and completely by the end of the month at the latest. "Syria has agreed that, subject to the acceptance of the Lebanese authorities, a U.N. team will be dispatched to verify the withdrawal," he said. The foreign minister said that "by its full withdrawal from Lebanon," Syria would have implemented its obligations under U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559. He praised Roed-Larsen "for his excellent achievement," saying it would improve the political climate in the Middle East.

Syrian influence helped to bring stability to Lebanon in the aftermath of the 15-year civil war but has become increasingly unpopular with many Lebanese. Last year, when Damascus forced the Lebanese Parliament to extend the term of Emile Lahoud, the Syrian-backed president, the Security Council approved Resolution 1559, calling for all foreign forces to leave the country.

Demands for Syria to comply increased dramatically after the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on Feb. 14 -- an act widely blamed on Syria or its Lebanese allies.

To save face, Syria has been seeking to portray its withdrawal as a phased fulfillment of the 1989 Taif accord, which ended the Lebanese civil war, rather than as a submission to international pressure. Last month, it pulled back its forces from western parts of Lebanon to the Bekaa Valley in the east. About 6,000 of the 14,000 troops who were in the country when the process began are thought to have returned to Syria.

The United States has been pressing Damascus to pull out its forces and intelligence agents before the end of this month so that Lebanese parliamentary elections, which are due to be spread over several weeks in May, can take place without interference. In previous elections, Syria has played a major role in selecting candidates. However, the elections now look almost certain to be delayed because Lebanon has no effective government to organize them.

The Syrian-backed government of Omar Karami resigned on Feb. 28 amid mass demonstrations, but 10 days later President Emile Lahoud, another ally of Syria, reappointed him as prime minister designate. After failing to form a new government Karami said he would step down, but so far he has not done so. The opposition has accused him of procrastinating to delay the elections. Karami blames the opposition for refusing to join him in a unity government.

The interim government in Beirut is likely to accept a U.N. team to verify Syria's withdrawal if advised to do so by Damascus. Even without a formal presence, Syria would still be able to exert influence -- especially through its allies in the Lebanese security services. The Lebanese opposition is demanding the resignations of several key security officials, but so far only the chief of military intelligence has gone.

By Brian Whitaker

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