Some breathing room for Beirut

On Monday, Syrian troops finished the largest pullout from Beirut since the Lebanese civil war ended.

The sudden withdrawal of some 7,000 Syrian troops from positions in Beirut over the past week wasn't the first such move, but it was the largest and most public redeployment from Beirut since the end of Lebanon's civil war in 1990. Nonetheless, the move is seen by most Beirut residents as little more than a goodwill gesture - albeit a welcome one.

Especially for Youssef Youssef, who lives opposite a building that housed Syrian troops for 14 years. Now he can park his car outside his home for the first time since 1987.

"The Syrians forbid anyone from parking next to their building," says Mr. Youssef, gazing at the dilapidated seafront apartment block on the other side of the narrow street. "They were scared of car bombs."

The Syrian officers who lived in the once grandiose five-story building - with its views of the Mediterranean, a pine tree-lined boulevard, and the distant northern mountains - packed their bags and slipped away last weekend.

Syria's abrupt decision to withdraw the troops from Lebanon's capital was designed to appease mounting criticism of its one-sided relationship with Lebanon.

This country lies wedged between Syria and Israel, two of the Middle East's bitterest enemies. For more than a decade, Syria has exerted control over its tiny neighbor to prevent Israel from gaining a foothold along Syria's western borders with Lebanon.

For many Lebanese, the departure of Syrian troops from Beirut will have little real impact.

"It doesn't mean anything. It's just symbolic," says Rima Khoury, a Greek Orthodox resident of Beirut, reflecting the view of many Lebanese Christians. "The presence of the troops didn't bother me anyway. But the Syrians are still in control here," she says.

The troops started pulling out last Thursday and were all but gone by Monday night. Columns of Syrian Army trucks belching thick black clouds of diesel fumes inched up the mountain highway east of Beirut. Grinning soldiers, clutching rifles and posters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, perched on piles of military equipment as they headed to their new positions in the Bekaa Valley along Lebanon's eastern frontier with Syria.

Lebanese and Syrian authorities said the redeployment was a natural outcome of constant dialogue between the two countries.

"Every time we enter a phase where the Lebanese military is capable of shouldering its responsibilities, the Syrian Army will take further steps in coordination with the Lebanese Army," said Lebanon's prime minister, Rafik Hariri, adding that the troop presence was "still necessary."

According to an Israeli-Arab member of Parliament who was visiting Syria, President Assad told him that the operation reflected Syria's desire to adjust its ties with "sister" Lebanon.

Lebanese opponents of Syria's hegemony - mainly members of the Christian community - give cautious approval for the move.

Nassib Lahoud, a Christian MP and cousin of Lebanon's president, said the redeployment was a "positive step" that would "pave the way for a real strategic cooperation" between Lebanon and Syria.

Entrenched history

The bloody Lebanese civil war was a year old when Syrian troops first entered Lebanon in 1976. The Syrians intervened, ironically, to save the Christian militias from defeat at the hands of Palestinian guerrillas and Lebanon's mainly Muslim militias.

But the relationship between Lebanon's Christians and their Syrian saviors soured as the Syrians stayed on, even after the civil war ended in 1989. Damascus deployed troops throughout Lebanon as a hedge against Israeli expansion.

Over that time, the Lebanese parliament became overwhelmingly pro-Syrian, and the Lebanese government made few decisions without first consulting Damascus. Syria and Lebanon pledged not to sign peace treaties with Israel independently.

Furthermore, some 1 million Syrian workers flooded this country of only 3.5 million. The influx of workers, along with smuggled Syrian agricultural goods, bred resentment among the poorer Lebanese who were forced to compete for jobs and market share. Syria's intrenchment was complete.

Public criticism of Syria was generally taboo and rarely mentioned in the media - until a year ago, when Israeli troops ended their 22-year occupation of southern Lebanon.

Then, barely two weeks later, Hafez al-Assad - Syria's long-serving president who maintained an iron grip on Lebanon - died.

Since then, the long-simmering issue has begun to boil here with agitation by Christians for troop withdrawal and a revision of ties with Syria.

The issue has topped the debate in Parliament. Anti-Syrian students protested in the streets, prompting counter demonstrations from supporters of Syria's role in Lebanon. The troop redeployment was Syria's attempt to mollify the opposition.

"I welcome it, certainly," says Dory Chamoun, the head of the Christian-dominated National Liberal Party and outspoken critic of Syria's involvement with Lebanon. "But I hope that it doesn't stop there. The best thing for Lebanon and Syria is definitely a total withdrawal."

Michael Young, a Lebanese political analyst and columnist, says the troop redeployment was a sop to public opinion in Lebanon and a means for Syria to "maintain the status quo." "The Syrians want to maintain control in Lebanon, and they see this as the best way of doing so."

Nonetheless, he adds, the redeployment has created a paradox for Syria. "It has lessened the pressure a little, but this will only lead to the question of when a full withdrawal will take place."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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