Syria’s ambassador to Washington said yesterday his country’s forces in Lebanon will begin a major redeployment toward their own border this morning.
The diplomat also said Syrian and U.S. troops will partake in joint security operations along the Syrian-Iraqi border, although State Department officials contradicted that claim.
“This is official,” said Imad Mustapha, Syria’s ambassador to Washington, speaking by telephone from the Syrian capital. “Tuesday morning there will be a major redeployment of Syrian forces in Lebanon toward the border.”
Mr. Mustapha was in Damascus for consultations before returning with Foreign Minister Farouk Sharaa to the United States, where they will attend the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York. Mr. Sharaa is also scheduled to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, according to Mr. Mustapha.
The ambassador said American radio reports of an agreement for joint U.S.-Syrian military cooperation along the Iraqi border were correct.
He said the plan was approved during a visit to Damascus last week by Peter Rodman, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, and William Burns, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs.
The ambassador did not say whether American troops would cross into Syria or Syrian troops into Iraq to conduct the patrols, but much of the border area is open desert with an ill-defined frontier.
A senior State Department official disputed the ambassador’s statement last night.
“We are looking for Syria to take certain action to protect the border. That action has not been taken yet. We’ll be working to improve Syria’s performance,” the official said. “At this point, that does not include joint actions with American troops.”
U.S. authorities in Baghdad have long been concerned that the border area is being used both by arms smugglers and foreign fighters seeking to join the resistance in Iraq.
A redeployment of Syrian forces in Lebanon should ease strains in U.S.-Syrian relations, which hit a low when President Bush signed into law the Syrian Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Act on Dec. 12.
The act imposed economic sanctions on Syria for what the U.S. government deems to be support of terrorist organizations, and also called for the withdrawal of Syrian troops who have been in Lebanon since that country’s 1975 civil war.
“This move should please all parties,” said Mr. Mustapha of the redeployment. “We have much more confidence in the situation in Lebanon” since the Lebanese parliament voted this month to amend its constitution and extend the mandate of Lebanon’s president for three years.
Under pressure from Damascus, 96 of the 128 lawmakers voted in favor of giving Emile Lahoud — the former Lebanese army commander and a staunch ally of Syria — another half-term as president. Mr. Lahoud was nearing completion of the single term permitted to him under the constitution before it was revised.
Syria’s pressure on Lebanon met severe criticism from France and the United States as well as from a number of Lebanese religious and political leaders.
Washington and Paris jointly sponsored U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, passed on Sept. 2, which called on Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon.
The United States has also accused Syria of supporting terrorism and of taking in fleeing Iraqi Ba’athists in the opening weeks of the Iraq war.
Asked how many troops would be involved in today’s redeployment and where they would be placed, Mr. Mustapha said it was “too early to tell” but that they would be shifted “toward the [Syrian] border area.”
He made clear that the troops would remain somewhere on the Lebanese side of the border for the foreseeable future.
In an interview in December, Syrian Minister of Expatriates Bouthaina Shaanban said Syria has “long borders with Lebanon and that it is our security that is at stake, and being at war with Israel we really cannot leave our borders unattended.”
Mr. Mustapha said that this move comes at a time when Syria is trying to cooperate with the United States.
Despite the setbacks in diplomatic relations, Syria has continued to cooperate with the United States in the war against terrorism, according to high-ranking Syrian officials, who said their actions had “saved American lives.”