The United States said yesterday that Syria must pull all its troops out of Lebanon by May. The White House said the withdrawal schedule “could be worked out.”
President Bashar Assad announced Saturday that 14,000 Syrian troops will pull back to the Lebanese border as the first phase of a two-step withdrawal. But Dan Bartlett, White House counselor, said Damascus also must commit to immediate removal of all secret services and intelligence officials, as U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559 demands.
“If [Mr. Assad] was clear on living up to those demands, those things could be worked out when we say ‘immediate,’” he told CNN’s “Late Edition.”
President Bush staked out the U.S. stance Friday, saying in New Jersey that “there are no half-measures at all.”
“When the United States and France say withdraw, we mean complete withdrawal, no half-hearted measures,” he said.
Lebanon has elections for a new legislature set for May, and Mr. Bartlett yesterday pointed to that event as the firm deadline for Syria to withdraw its troops and other forces.
“But one thing is still clear: If we’re going to have a free and fair election this spring, it’s hard to believe that that could take place with the presence of Syrian troops and secret services officials,” he told CNN.
“I don’t think there could be a scenario in which there could be a real, truly free and fair election with the Syrian presence continuing to have an intimidation factor in Lebanon,” he said.
In Beirut yesterday, Lebanese Defense Minister Abdul-Rahim Murad told the Associated Press that “the Syrian withdrawal will begin Monday directly after the meeting in Damascus of the Syrian and Lebanese leaderships.”
Mr. Assad and Lebanese President Emile Lahoud meet today to approve the two-phase proposal for Syrian withdrawal and work out the plan’s details, including a timeline, officials in Beirut told Reuters news agency.
Officials expect Syria’s initial withdrawal from northern and central Lebanon to the eastern part of the country, as called for in the Taif Accord that ended Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war, to be complete in about three days.
Key to the agreement is the removal of intelligence and secret service officials who “really keep the clamp of fear in the Lebanese people,” Mr. Bartlett said.
Mr. Assad has refused to address this issue, Mr. Bartlett said.
In his speech, Mr. Assad did not say whether or when a total withdrawal would be accomplished and he said nothing about pulling out intelligence officials.
“If you listen to the Lebanese people and other people who have seen his behavior in the past, it seems to be more generalities and half-measures as opposed to living up to the international community’s demand,” he said.
In an appearance on “Fox News Sunday,” Mr. Bartlett reiterated Mr. Bush’s warning against half-measures.
“We’ll continue to make clear that they understand that the international community is not going to stand by and let Assad continue to have these type of half-measures, but to live up to his international demands,” Mr. Bartlett said.
In an interview released yesterday, Mr. Assad emphasized to Time magazine that he wanted to cooperate with world demands and that he should not be compared to Saddam Hussein, whose dictatorship was crushed by a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq after years of noncompliance with resolutions of the United Nations.
At the end of the interview, which was conducted last week, Mr. Assad said: “Please send this message: I am not Saddam Hussein. I want to cooperate.”
Mr. Assad said Saturday that Syrian troops initially would pull back to the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon and then to the border area.
“By this measure Syria would have fulfilled its commitment toward the Taif Accord and implemented Resolution 1559,” he told the Syrian parliament, a disputed interpretation of the U.N. order.
Buthaina Shaaban, a member of the Syrian Cabinet, said troops would withdraw to the Syrian side of the border “as soon as possible logistically.”
Mr. Bartlett said the international community is united with the Lebanese people in telling the Syrian government to withdraw all its forces.
France, the European Union and the Arab League have joined Mr. Bush in calling for an immediate withdrawal of troops, and this week Russia and Saudi Arabia voiced support against Syria.
“This is critically important for the future of the Lebanese people. We’re going to continue to keep the pressure by speaking with a clear, united voice with the international community,” Mr. Bartlett said.
Lebanon’s political opposition also was somewhat skeptical of the Assad speech, with legislator Fares Soueid calling it “a political announcement.”
“What the Lebanese are waiting for is implementation of this announcement,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Syrian- and Iranian-backed Hezbollah dismissed calls in Resolution 1559 for the terrorist group’s disarmament.
“The resistance will not give up its arms … because Lebanon needs the resistance to defend it,” said Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the chief of the Lebanon-based Shi’ite Muslim group blamed for hostage taking in Beirut and attacks on Israel.
“The aim of America and Israel is to spread chaos in Lebanon and … to find excuses for foreign intervention,” Mr. Nasrallah said at a press conference yesterday.
Hezbollah, which has several members in Lebanon’s parliament, and its local allies called for a demonstration in Beirut tomorrow to support Syria and protest Western meddling.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.