- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 17, 2005

NEW YORK — Syrian President Bashar Assad has pledged to remove all Syrian soldiers, intelligence and military assets from Lebanon in time for that country’s parliamentary elections in May, the top U.N. envoy to the region said yesterday.

The commitment to complete the withdrawal by the elections meets a key demand by President Bush.

U.N. special envoy Terje Roed-Larsen also said the two-phase withdrawal is on track.

Syrian troops have “by and large” restaged to Lebanon’s northern Bekaa Valley in anticipation of a full withdrawal, he said, and observers report that well-known intelligence outposts clearly are being abandoned.

“In conversations, [Mr. Assad] made a clear and unequivocal commitment that he would meet his obligations” outlined by the Security Council Resolution 1559, Mr. Roed-Larsen said.

That resolution, passed in September, calls on Damascus to move all troops and intelligence agents to the Bekaa Valley near the Syrian border and to negotiate with Lebanon a complete withdrawal.

The resolution also demands that all Lebanese militias be disarmed and calls on regional powers to help keep Lebanon stable and calm.

Mr. Roed-Larsen said Syria was well ahead of its self-proclaimed April 1 deadline to withdraw its estimated 14,000 troops and 4,000 intelligence agents to Lebanon’s northern border.

International pressure on Syria — and pressure within Lebanon — to get out of Lebanon intensified after the Feb. 14 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Many Lebanese blame the assassination on Syrian intelligence, an accusation Damascus denies.

There is no date for the second phase leading to a complete pullout, but diplomats and officials from the United Nations have stressed that Lebanon should be free from Syrian interference before the elections.

There was no confirmation yesterday from Syria, which sent mixed signals about its intention.

Syria’s ambassador to the United States had said the withdrawal would be complete before the elections. Officials in Damascus had pledged a complete withdrawal without giving a timetable.

Mr. Roed-Larsen said yesterday that Lebanon and Syria had agreed to create a joint military committee to determine the timeline for the full withdrawal.

Those meetings are to begin early next month.

“This will lead to a point, if it happens, where Syria … will have fulfilled its obligations under 1559,” Mr. Roed-Larsen said yesterday. “I stress this has not taken place, but this is the understanding reached with President Assad in Aleppo on the 12th of March.”

He said he had not discussed sanctions or other punitive measures with Syrian leaders to enforce compliance.

“There is no or-else,” he said, despite persistent rumors and published reports to the contrary.

Mr. Roed-Larsen, who has spent much of the past two decades in the Middle East for the United Nations, declined to say why the Syrians would pull out now, nearly 30 years after first sending troops into Lebanon.

“I do perceive, inside and outside the Security Council, unique, remarkable and broad consensus” on Syria’s withdrawal, he said.

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