Assad to announce Lebanon pullback
US wants more
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is prepared to announce today a partial pullout of troops from Lebanon, but US President George W. Bush warned nothing short of a full withdrawal would satisfy Washington.
"When we say withdraw we mean complete withdrawal - no half-hearted measures," Mr Bush told an audience in New Jersey yesterday. "Syrian troops, Syrian intelligence services must get out of Lebanon now."
Mr Bush called in an interview published earlier for all Syrian forces to be out by May to clear the way for fair elections.
In a speech to Syria's parliament, Mr Assad is expected announce the pullout of some troops completely from Lebanon and the redeployment of the rest close to the border, Lebanese political sources said yesterday.
Abdel Halim Mrad, defence minister in the Syrian-backed Lebanese government which resigned on Monday, said the move would adhere to the Taif Accord which ended Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war.
"Syria will redeploy its forces in line with Taif," he said.
The agreement stipulates Syrian forces be redeployed to the eastern Bekaa Valley, and then that the Lebanese and Syrian governments agree on how long these forces stay.
Syria 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.
Pressure on Damascus has intensified since former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri was assassinated last month in a bombing many Lebanese blame on Syria. Syria denies involvement.
While the pressure from Arab leaders is veiled, Western governments have become increasingly blunt.
US officials said Washington and European allies wanted to be ready to act quickly, perhaps with sanctions and a tougher UN resolution, if Syria failed to pull out.
Mr Bush said in an interview in the New York Post: "This is non-negotiable. It is time to get out... I think we've got a good chance to achieve that objective and to make sure that the May elections (in Lebanon) are fair. I don't think you can have fair elections with Syrian troops there."
British Foreign Minister Jack Straw told BBC radio that unless the Syrians pulled out "they will be treated as a pariah not just by the West but by most of their Arab neighbours".
Mr Straw raised the possibility of more international peacekeepers being sent to Lebanon but ruled out the possibility of a military attack on Syria.
"I promise you there is absolutely no suggestion of military action - absolutely none," he said.
Lebanese opposition figures cautiously welcomed the expected withdrawal, calling it a step in the right direction, but said like Mr Bush they hoped the pullback would include the Syrian intelligence services active in Lebanon.
Analysts said a withdrawal was now inevitable, with only its timing and terms still in doubt, after Damascus miscalculated the extent of international opposition to its role in Lebanon.
A pullout could have implications for Lebanon's Syrian-backed Hizbollah guerillas, listed by the US as a terrorist group.
Analysts said they had realised they must work with the anti-Syrian opposition but their main concern was holding on to their arms.
Syria has viewed Lebanon as a strategic asset and a key economic outlet for decades. Arab nationalists in Damascus have traditionally seen Lebanon as a rightful part of Syria sliced off by French-British colonial machinations.
Syria's military presence dates from a 1976 intervention into the civil war. After 1990 the troops stayed on and helped Damascus maintain political domination, but in recent years their numbers have declined.
Lebanon's political opposition reacted with fury to Mr Hariri's assassination, pointed the finger of blame at Syria and organised street protests which led to the resignation of the pro-Syrian government.
Hundreds of demonstrators have kept up daily protests in central Beirut. A judicial source said yesterday investigations showed Mr Hariri was almost certainly killed by a suicide car bomb.