- The Washington Times - Monday, March 7, 2005

DAMASCUS, Syria — The presidents of Syria and Lebanon agreed yesterday that Syrian troops would pull back to the countries’ common border by the end of the month and that a timetable for a complete withdrawal would be determined within a month.

Later, Syrian military vehicles and personnel were seen moving east in the first signs of a withdrawal.

Syrian President Bashar Assad and Lebanese President Emile Lahoud said in Damascus that Syria’s troops would be pulled back to the eastern Bekaa Valley. Military officials from both countries would determine later how many troops would remain in Bekaa and for how long.

Although no timetable was set yesterday, the leaders said their governments would agree to “complete the withdrawal of the remaining forces.”

Senior unnamed Syrian officials said the withdrawal included Syria’s intelligence agents, Agence France-Presse reported.

The announcement came two days after Mr. Assad delivered a defiant speech on Lebanon to the Syrian parliament and three weeks after the Feb. 14 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which triggered a peaceful campaign against Syrian control.

In the announcement, Mr. Assad addressed the concerns of the Syrian people by outlining a withdrawal strategy under the terms of the 1989 Taif Accord, which called for the redeployment of Syrian troops to Bekaa and then further negotiations for a final withdrawal.

“Time for words and communiques and statements and discussions of more meetings is really gone,” U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters yesterday. “We need to see Syria in action.”

Pressure from the United States and several European countries and the mass protests in Lebanon, sometimes by as many as 150,000 people, has left many Syrians nervous and angry. Mr. Assad is popular in Syria for articulating the voice of the “Arab street.”

Joshua Landis, a specialist on Syria based in Damascus, said most people were pleased with Mr. Assad’s speech.

“Most Syrians appreciated the president’s rhetoric about Arabism and how Syria is protecting its identity and that of the Arabs more generally,” Mr. Landis wrote in his Web log, syriacomment.com.

“They see the recent events as he does, as a battle between the forces of imperialism and Zionism against those of the embattled Arabs and Syrians.”

The Syrian population is largely in favor of the withdrawal of its 14,000 forces in Lebanon, who have been there for 29 years. But many Syrians also fear that a rapid withdrawal could result in an outbreak of violence once again in Lebanon.

Syria has been the power broker in Lebanon and played a critical role in bringing stability to the country since its 15-year civil war ended in 1990.

Many Syrians, however, say it is time to leave.

“Syria has to get out of Lebanon — even if only for the reason that the Lebanese now hate us,” said Maan Abdul-Salam, an activist and publisher of a Web site on women’s rights.

“Lebanon is a breath of fresh air for Syrians and a place where Syrians go to get away from the pressure here. Now, they hate us.”

• This story is based in part on wire service reports.

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