Syria affirms withdrawal intentions

Sunday, March 13, 2005 UN special envoy Terje Roed-Larsen said in a telephone interview Saturday from Beirut that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made "a firm commitment" for a two-stage pull out of forces in Lebenon. Roed-Larson met with the leader at his Aleppo home late last week for talks on Syrian intentions of following the UN Security Council Resolution 1559.

The US and French backed resolution calls for the complete withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon and reaffirms Lebanon's sovereignty and independence. It is hoped that the withdrawal will be completed prior to the Lebanese election scheduled for early May.

A complete plan and time table for full withdrawal is not yet known. White House national security advisor, Stephen Hadley, said the United States is waiting for details of the meeting with the special envoy. According to a report in the Washington Post, the first part of a pull-out calls for one third of the troops to be either removed or relocated into eastern Bekaa Valley and to shut down intelligence headquarters in Beirut by the end of March. Then on April 7, a Lebanese-Syrian military commission will meet to discuss the removal of additional forces.

The Washington administration seems prepared to accept a Syrian withdrawal in phases, but is cautious of al-Assad's pledges. Hadley said on a 'Fox News Sunday' broadcast interview: "In the end of the day, it's going to be deeds, not words, that matter."

The assassination of Lebanese former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on Feb. 14 galvanized anti-Syrian opposition and foreign pressure that was calling for an end to the Syrian presence. It is estimated their total military force is now 15,000, with an additional 5,000 intelligence assets, down from a high of 40,000 during years of Syrian involvement. Syria occupied Lebanon beginning in 1976 when the country was at civil war. Associated Press and US intelligence reported significant troop movements out of Lebanon beginning in earnest last week amid differing protest groups in Beirut who marched both for, and alternately against, the Syrian involvement.