Welcome departure

Lebanese celebrate the end of a 29-year occupation as Syria's last troops and intelligence agents leave early.

Published April 26, 2005 2:00PM (EDT)

Syria declared a formal end to its 29-year military involvement in Lebanon Tuesday with a "farewell" ceremony in the Bekaa Valley -- four days earlier than expected. Hundreds of Syrian troops left the country over the weekend after burning documents, demolishing walls and filling bunkers. Monday, Syrian intelligence abandoned Anjar, the headquarters of Rustum Ghazaleh, the intelligence chief who was once the most feared man in Lebanon. He was reported to have left for Damascus Monday night but was due to return for Tuesday's ceremony.

As the withdrawal neared completion, Maj. Gen. Jamil Sayyed, the powerful Lebanese security chief, announced his resignation after local press reports said he was about to be reprimanded for insubordination by the newly appointed interior minister. Gen. Sayyed stepped aside last week, supposedly temporarily, to "facilitate" a U.N. investigation into the assassination of the former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. He has denied claims that he was involved in the killing.

Gen. Sayyed is one of seven pro-Syrian officials whose resignations have been demanded by the Lebanese opposition. Of the others, Ali al-Hajj, head of internal security, put himself "at the disposal" of the prime minister last week. A third, Raymond Azar, the head of military intelligence, has left Lebanon for what was described as a "mission" in Paris.

Syria sent its troops into Lebanon in 1976 and has maintained political hegemony over the country since its civil war ended in 1990. By early this year it had already reduced its forces from a peak of about 40,000 five years ago to about 14,000.

Last September, when Damascus leaned heavily on the Lebanese Parliament to extend the term of Syrian-backed President Emil Lahoud, the U.N. Security Council responded with Resolution 1559, calling for an end to Syria's interference, including a total withdrawal of its forces.

Pressure on Damascus intensified following Hariri's death in a huge explosion on Feb. 14 -- an act widely blamed on Syria or its Lebanese allies. Faced with mass demonstrations in Beirut and international calls for a speedy withdrawal, Syria had little option but to pull its forces out. Anxious to save face, Damascus has sought to portray its withdrawal as implementation of the 1989 Taif accord that ended the Lebanese civil war.

Tuesday's ceremony is likely to provide Syria with more face-saving spin and may also distract some attention from a U.N. report, due to be delivered Tuesday by Kofi Annan, on the extent of Syrian compliance with Resolution 1559.

By Brian Whitaker

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