Thursday, March 3, 2005

Saudi Arabia yesterday demanded that Syria begin an immediate withdrawal of its forces in Lebanon, adding fresh momentum to a U.S.-backed drive to end three decades of Syrian domination of its neighbor.

Syrian President Bashar Assad, who traveled to the Saudi capital of Riyadh yesterday, found himself increasingly isolated as Russia and Germany also joined a growing chorus of nations demanding Syria to pull out its estimated 14,000 troops and intelligence agents in Lebanon.

“Lebanon should be given an opportunity for sovereignty and development and this can only be achieved by compliance with [U.N.] resolutions that stipulate immediate Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon,” said German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder on a visit to Yemen yesterday.

Diplomats said the Syrian leader and his foreign minister, Farouq al-Shara, met Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Abdullah, in Riyadh in the presence of Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal.

As other Arab states either joined the call for a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon or withheld support for the Syrian position, it became clear that a bandwagon effect was taking place in the Middle East in response to calls by the United States and France last week to promote freedom and democracy in the region.

U.S. officials, already unhappy over what they see as Syria’s lack of cooperation on Iraq and Palestinian terrorism, kept the pressure on, riding a global wave of outrage sparked by the assassination of Lebanon’s anti-Syrian former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri last month.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice dismissed out of hand a suggestion by Mr. Assad that Syria retain 3,000 of its troops in Lebanon to prevent chaos and safeguard its own borders. She said the Franco-U.S. resolution adopted by the U.N. Security Council in September called for a Lebanon free of all foreign occupying forces.

“‘Free of foreign interference’ means exactly that,” she said.

In New York, U.N. officials said Terje Roed-Larsen, Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s special envoy on Lebanon, would be returning to Beirut to discuss the Syrian withdrawal, his first trip to the region since Mr. Hariri’s killing.

The statements by Saudi Arabia and Russia, both longtime allies of Damascus, were a particular blow to Syrian hopes of riding out the storm.

“Syria must start withdrawing soon, otherwise Saudi-Syrian relations will go through difficulties,” one Saudi official was quoted as saying.

Mr. Assad replied only that he would study the possibility of carrying out a partial withdrawal before an Arab summit scheduled for March 23 in Algeria, the official said.

The Syrian leader insisted he is doing everything he can to resolve the problem but that not everything is up to him, the official said.

Saudi leaders had been close to Mr. Hariri, a Sunni Arab billionaire with close personal ties to the Saudi royal family.

Arab League representatives meeting in Cairo declined yesterday to issue a public call for Syrian withdrawal. But diplomats said the move actually could deepen Syria’s troubles, for it had been hoping the Arab League could provide diplomatic cover for its withdrawal.

Egypt already has called for a quick Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, to be completed by April.

Russia, which had abstained on the Security Council vote in September, said Damascus was now obliged to abide by the U.N. vote.

“Syria should withdraw from Lebanon, but we all have to make sure that this withdrawal does not violate the very fragile balance which we still have in Lebanon, which is a very difficult country ethnically,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in an interview late Wednesday with the British Broadcasting Corp.

Initially invited in the mid-1970s to quell ethnic and religious violence in Lebanon, Syrian troops have become a crucial source of regional influence for Damascus and a bargaining chip in the confrontation with Israel. Syria agreed in principle to pull out of Lebanon in 1989, but has never followed through on its promises.

Theodore Kattouf, U.S. ambassador to Syria until 2003 and a longtime diplomat to the region, said Mr. Assad probably will not be able to withstand the international pressure to withdraw.

But the young Syrian leader, who has never managed to consolidate power fully since the death of his father, Hafez Assad, in 2000, would likely face a challenge to his own authority at home if forced to pull back, Mr. Kattouf added.

“If the old elements think Bashar didn’t push hard enough to preserve the regime, there could well be a change at the top, with somebody more ruthless running the show,” he said.

Miss Rice said the turmoil in Syria, the anti-Syrian street protests in Lebanon and the stirrings of democratic reform elsewhere in the Arab world show the impact of the U.S.-led drive to oust Saddam Hussein and install a new democratic regime in Iraq.

“I do think that the pictures and the spirit of the Iraqi people exercising the democratic franchise for the first time in the center of the Middle East, in the center of the Arab world, have had an effect,” she said.

Mr. Kattouf said the Bush administration has handled the diplomatic fallout from the Hariri assassination skillfully, rallying international support around the basic question of Syria’s military occupation of its neighbor.

“If the perception takes root that this is all about destabilizing Syria by rolling the dice, then you might see the international coalition beginning to fracture,” he said.

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