- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 5, 2005

DAMASCUS, Syria — President Bashar Assad yesterday announced a two-stage pullback of Syrian forces to the Lebanese border, but failed to address broad international demands that he completely withdraw Syria’s 14,000 troops after nearly 30 years in the country.

Mr. Assad also did not respond to President Bush’s demand just a day earlier that Syria withdraw all its troops and intelligence agents from Lebanon before its parliamentary elections in May.

Instead, Mr. Assad said his plan would put Syria in full compliance with international agreements and U.N. demands.

“By carrying out this measure, Syria will have fulfilled requirements of the Taif agreement and implemented U.N. Resolution 1559,” the Syrian leader said in a rare address to parliament, referring to the 1989 Arab-brokered Taif Accord, which called for Syria to move its troops to the Lebanese border and for both countries to then negotiate the withdrawal.

Mr. Assad was vague about the pullback, leaving it unclear if Syrian forces would eventually leave Lebanon or remain inside the country near the Syrian frontier. He said Syrian and Lebanese authorities would negotiate this week.

Later yesterday, however, Syrian Immigrant Affairs Minister Buthaina Shaaban told Lebanese Broadcast Corp. (LBC) television that withdrawal would be complete. “The matter is very clear. When an army withdraws, it withdraws to inside the country’s border.”

The United States issued a strong statement of dissatisfaction with Mr. Assad’s comments, which came after four weeks of political turmoil in Lebanon set off by the assassination of a popular former prime minister.

“As President Bush said Friday, when the United States and France say ‘withdraw,’ we mean complete withdrawal — no halfhearted measures,” the U.S. statement said.

France, which co-authored with Washington a U.N. resolution demanding Syrian withdrawal, also stood by its demands. Russia, Britain and the European Union expressed satisfaction with Mr. Assad’s announcement, saying it was a first step toward a full withdrawal.

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom dismissed the Syrian president’s speech as failing to meet international requirements, which he said include “a complete withdrawal of all Syrian troops from Lebanon.”

Mr. Assad said Syria would not relinquish its role in the country.

“Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon does not mean the absence of Syria’s role [in Lebanon],” Reuters news agency quoted Mr. Assad as saying. “Syria’s strength and its role in Lebanon is not dependent on the presence of its forces in Lebanon.”

“Withdrawal does not damage Syrian interests. On the contrary, it fosters Syrian interests. … That is why we began withdrawing five years ago and have withdrawn 63 percent of the forces,” he added.

Outside Damascus’ People’s Assembly, thousands of Syrians watching the speech on large screens chanted pro-Assad slogans and waved the country’s red-white-and-black flags.

“Oh, God Almighty, safeguard Bashar our leader,” and “One, one, one, Syria and Lebanon are one!” and “Bush, Bush, listen, the Syrian people will not bow,” the group cried out.

In Beirut, where the pro-Syrian government stepped down last week under intense popular pressure, about 1,000 Lebanese watching the speech on large outdoor screens in Martyrs Square seemed unconvinced by Mr. Assad’s words. Waving Lebanese flags, they continued the chants “Syria out” and other slogans they have shouted in weeks of demonstrations.

Some Lebanese opposition leaders complained that Mr. Assad had not made clear what he planned and charged that he set no timetable.

“The Syrian army should withdraw to the inside of Syrian territories, not to the border,” said Michel Aoun, an opposition leader who spoke to Al Arabiya television from Paris. “I call on the Lebanese to be very careful about the wording and not to be happy over the general meaning.”

But Walid Jumblatt, a prominent opposition figure, was conciliatory.

“Before casting doubt, let’s see the implementation on the ground,” he told LBC.

Mr. Assad’s speech also came at the end of a week of Arab pressure, including Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Abdullah telling the Syrian leader that he must remove his forces from Lebanon quickly.

Mr. Assad said Syria would be in compliance with the Taif Accord, and the U.N. resolution, which was drafted by the United States and France in September.

Thousands of Lebanese have staged almost daily protests since the Feb. 14 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut, which many in Lebanon blame on the pro-Syrian Lebanese government and its Syrian backers. Both the Beirut government and Syria deny involvement.

Mr. Hariri, 60, resigned last year amid opposition to a Syrian-backed constitutional amendment that enabled his rival, President Emile Lahoud, to extend his term in office.

Syria has kept troops in Lebanon since 1976, when they were sent as peacekeepers during that country’s 1975-1990 civil war. When the war ended, the troops remained and Damascus continued to wield decisive influence with Lebanese officials.

Syria currently has about 14,000 troops in Lebanon, down from 40,000. It has carried out five redeployments since 2000, pulling some forces to the Bekaa and some back to Syria, but has maintained forces in and around Beirut and in northern Lebanon.

In the carefully worded address, Mr. Assad said, “We would not stay one day if there was Lebanese consensus on the departure of Syria.”

“We will withdraw our forces stationed in Lebanon fully to the Bekaa region [in the east] and later to the Lebanese-Syrian border areas,” he said.

A spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Mr. Annan would study Mr. Assad’s comments and noted that a special envoy had been sent to the area to discuss the September resolution.

The Lebanese people are sharply divided over the presence of Syrian soldiers. Gunfire erupted yesterday in Beirut’s anti-Syrian Christian sector after pro-Syrian protesters arrived in the area, witnesses said. There were no reported injuries.

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