- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 10, 2005

The United Nations is sending its Middle East envoy to Damascus this week to seek a timetable for Syria’s withdrawal of its 14,000 troops from Lebanon amid mixed signals from Syrian officials.

U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larsen will fly to the region today, stopping for talks in Egypt, Lebanon and possibly Jordan before his scheduled arrival Saturday in the Syrian capital, diplomats said yesterday.

President Bush has demanded that Syria comply with a U.N. resolution and withdraw all of its forces from Lebanon.

In addition, Mr. Bush has demanded that the withdrawal be completed before Lebanon holds parliamentary elections in May.

Syria’s ambassador to the United States said this week that his government’s forces would be gone by May, but senior officials in Syria have promised only to withdraw them to the border and then negotiate a timetable for their return to Syria.

A Middle East diplomat in Washington said leaders in the region are “not happy” about the contradictory messages.

“The Syrian ambassador in Washington said one thing, and on the same day, President [Bashar] Assad’s deputy in Damascus said another thing,” said the diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“They will definitely withdraw, that is a done deal, but we are finding mixed signals about the timing, and leaders in the region are unhappy with that.”

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said yesterday that Mr. Roed-Larsen, who is acting with the backing of the U.N. Security Council, would seek to pin down precise dates for the pullout.

“I hope the envoy will be able to come back with a timetable,” he told journalists on the sidelines of a counterterrorism summit yesterday in Madrid.

Syrian troops in Lebanon were seen yesterday moving closer to their own border, but Mr. Annan said that was not enough to comply with Security Council Resolution 1559, which demands that all foreign soldiers leave Lebanon and that all militias there be disarmed.

“What is essential is that full and complete withdrawal takes place,” Mr. Annan said.

Syria’s ambassador in Washington, Imad Mustapha, said on Tuesday that his nation’s soldiers would pull out of Lebanon completely well before the end of May.

“We will withdraw to the Bekaa Valley in phase one and then to inside Syria proper in phase two. We have actually pulled some of those troops into Syria as of today,” Mr. Mustapha told CNN on Tuesday.

Asked specifically whether all Syrian troops and intelligence officers would be out of Lebanon before the end of May, the ambassador answered, “Yes.”

Mr. Assad himself, however, has not publicly given any date for the second phase of the withdrawal, saying that would be subject to negotiations with Lebanon.

Mr. Bush yesterday criticized that plan as “half-hearted” and reiterated his call for Syria to comply with U.N. demands for a complete withdrawal.

“One thing a lot of people don’t understand is Syrian influence is heavy-handed through the involvement of intelligence services throughout the [Lebanese] government,” the president said during a brief question-and-answer session in the Oval Office.

“And they must remove both for the election to be free.”

Mr. Bush said the United States was consulting with allies about possible steps if Damascus refuses: “The world is speaking now. That’s what President Assad must understand. That’s not just the Western world that speaks.”

Leading Arab powers, including Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have also asked Mr. Assad to comply with the U.N. resolution.

U.N. officials declined to discuss Mr. Roed-Larsen’s mission in detail, but spokesman Farhan Haq said he was to discuss “all aspects of Resolution 1559, and you can interpret that any way you like.”

He said “sanctions could come up under that” but that it was unlikely. “That’s probably a sign of how the U.S. sees it going, rather than where the U.N. sees it going,” he said.

An American official also said he would be surprised if Mr. Roed-Larsen discussed sanctions. “The U.N. doesn’t do things like that. There would be such resistance to sanctions. The U.N. just wouldn’t take a stand,” he said.

Mr. Roed-Larsen, currently in Spain for the counterterrorism conference, is expected to begin his trip in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheik for talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. U.N. sources said he would travel to Beirut tomorrow and could be in Damascus by Saturday.

Mr. Roed-Larsen discussed plans for the trip in Washington on Friday with officials at the White House and the State Department, principally William Burns, acting undersecretary of state for political affairs.

“Larsen is going to seek a stronger indication of Syria’s intentions and its willingness to withdraw,” a senior State Department official said of the talks.

• Nicholas Kralev in Washington contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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