Syria says Lebanon withdrawal will be swift


Syria today vowed to make its two-phased withdrawal of troops from Lebanon swift.

The Lebanese press today described yesterday's announcement by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad as a historic move opening a new chapter for the country after 30 years of civil war and domination.

International pressure mounted on president Assad after the assassination of former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri highlighted the Syrian role in Lebanon. The Syrians are widely regarded to be behind last month's murder in Beirut and effectively control the country in security and political terms.

Yesterday, president Assad announced plans for a complete pullout but, perhaps ominously, said Damascus would still play a role in the tiny neighbouring state. Mr Assad said: "Syria's strength and its role in Lebanon is not dependent on the presence of its forces in Lebanon." Damascus has viewed Lebanon as a strategic asset and key economic outlet for decades.

Lebanese people nonetheless greeted yesterday's announcement with celebrations, though opposition figures in Lebanon and European leaders were more cautious.

"We wake up in Lebanon today to a new political reality, the opening of a new phase in the country's history," the As-Safirnewspaper said in a front-page editorial. Al-Mustaqballabelled the announcement "a historic event".

The US though, which says Syrian "support for terrorism" impedes Middle East peace, dismissed the plan as inadequate and reiterated its call for a complete and immediate withdrawal. The Israelis were equally critical.

Iran said it respected the decision but claimed the international pressure on Damascus was motivated by "Zionist lobbies [attempting] to safeguard Israel's survival and its expansionist policies".

Mr Assad told parliament yesterday that troops would initially pull back to the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon and then to the border area. "By this measure Syria would have fulfilled its commitment towards the Taif Accord and implemented (UN Security Council) Resolution 1559," he said.

The Taif Accord ended Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war and, among other points, stipulated the withdrawal of Syrian troops from most of the country within two years. Resolution 1559, adopted last September by the UN Security Council at the initiative of the United States and France, called for foreign troops to quit Lebanon completely.

UN special envoy Terje Roed-Larsen is expected to go to Beirut and Damascus this week to discuss the "full, complete and immediate implementation" of the resolution and the Syrians and Lebanese are due to hold talks tomorrow to discuss the logistics and timing of the withdrawal.

There is some concern though, that the withdrawal could revive the internal conflict of the civil war which ended 15 years ago. The Lebanon remains divided between Christians, Druze, Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims and there was pro-Syrian dissent on the streets of some towns last night.