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With Syria out, Lebanon clout grows

The last Syrian troops left Lebanon Tuesday, ending 29 years of military domination.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 27, 2005



RAYAK, LEBANON

Elite Syrian paratroops in pressed camouflage uniforms and red berets marched alongside their Lebanese counterparts at an old airfield here Tuesday in a colorful farewell ceremony that formally ended Syria's 29-year military presence in Lebanon.

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The departure of the last batch of Syrian troops was a historic moment for the Lebanese and underlined just how dramatically and quickly Syria's grip on this tiny Mediterranean country has weakened after 15 years of near-total domination.

With the pro-Syrian establishment in Beirut continuing to unravel by the day, any hope that Damascus might have harbored of retaining some level of influence in Lebanon appears to be fading fast. "The question should be what influence will Lebanon have on Syria," says Michael Young, a Lebanese political analyst.

"Syria was stronger militarily but it was never stronger politically, economically, culturally ... in all the domains Syria imposed its order through force," Mr. Young says. "At this point, to my mind, Lebanon is stronger."

Without the pervasive and sometimes ruthless Syrian military intelligence, known as the mukhabarat, Damascus lacks the means of maintaining its tight control over Lebanon's vibrant politics and economy.

Some of Syria's ruling political and military elite amassed fortunes in Lebanon, muscling in on business deals with Lebanese partners and raking off profits from numerous ventures such as cellular telephone networks and casinos. Syrian laborers, too, relied on Lebanon for work, their remittances providing a welcome boost to Syria's cash-starved economy.

But the era of easy pickings for the Syrians appears to be over. Syria's one-time loyal allies in Lebanon are turning their backs on their former masters in Damascus, playing to the new mood of independence to ensure political survival.

And what is seen by many as a humiliating withdrawal for Syria may even force the government led by Bashar al-Assad to consider swift political reforms to ensure the survival of his regime. Some observressay the emergence of a sense of independence in Lebanon may begin to resonate among Syrians who have been calling for democratic reform in growing numbers.

The vanishing Syrian influence in Lebanon goes much deeper than the departure of 14,000 troops once stationed here. The once-feared chiefs of Lebanon's intelligence and security services, who upheld Syrian rule here, are toppling one by one as the new Lebanese government promises to hold them accountable for alleged past misdeeds.

On Monday, Jamil Sayyed, the powerful head of the General Security service, announced his resignation, blaming "changing political developments," while Raymond Azar, the chief of Lebanese military intelligence, was reported to have fled with his family to France.

The opposition blames the security and intelligence chiefs of colluding with Syria in the assassination of Rafik Hariri, a former prime minister, whose death in February triggered a wave of anti-Syrian demonstrations that ultimately led Syria to withdraw its troops.

A United Nations team arrived in Damascus Tuesday to begin a verification mission to ensure that Syrian forces and intelligence personnel have fully departed Lebanon in compliance with UN Resolution 1559. The Syrian government has pledged to cooperate with the UN and has handed over maps, documents, and aerial photographs to confirm its withdrawal.

The team is expected to issue a preliminary report in two weeks, according to a UN spokesman in Beirut.

Although it should be an easy task to discover if the military positions and intelligence offices have been vacated, it will be more difficult to ascertain whether all Syria's undercover agents have departed. "I don't think the UN team can do it," says a European defense attaché, speaking after the military ceremony in Rayak. "We can't tell if they have all gone, so I don't see how they can."

Washington also has voiced concerns that Syria could still interfere in Lebanese affairs if its intelligence agents remain in Lebanon. A State Department official was quoted by Agence France Presse as saying that while the Syrian army appeared to have departed Lebanon, "I think there is considerable more skepticism about the intelligence assets."

The Lebanese army has moved into most of the abandoned Syrian army and intelligence positions in the Bekaa Valley. Relaxing in the morning sun, three Lebanese soldiers sat on stools in a courtyard beside several farm buildings. The soldiers turn away visitors, saying the area is a closed military zone.

The farm, known as the "Onion Factory," sends a chill through the hearts of local Lebanese, since it was the main interrogation center for Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon. "This place has a dark reputation," says a truck driver from the nearby village of Majdal Anjar, refusing to give his name. He recalls working near the Onion Factory two summers ago.

"It was terrible because I could hear screams coming from inside," he says. "I could see about 15 people blindfolded and kept out in the hot sun."

Syrian symbols have been painted out on the walls of the building, although the departing intelligence agents spray-painted one wall with several slogans and quotations from the Koran. "The Arab nation won't die," reads one slogan.

In the nearby ethnic Armenian town of Anjar, headquarters since 1976 of Syria's military intelligence service, there is barely disguised delight at the departure of the Syrians.

"We are very happy to see them go," says Rafi Tamorian. "They might be our brothers, but they have been treading on our hearts for too long."

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