Syria loosens its grip on Lebanon

Despite the latest troop withdrawal last week, about 15,000 Syrians remain.

Syria has staged its fourth troop redeployment from Lebanon in three years as Damascus continues to remove the visible examples of the vise-like grip it exerts on its tiny neighbor.

Several small Syrian military positions in this coastal town just south of Beirut and two neighboring villages were vacated without warning last week. Other Syrian positions were abandoned in northern Lebanon and in the Bekaa valley running along Lebanon's eastern border with Syria. Some 1,000 soldiers are believed to have returned to Syria, lowering the total number of Syrian troops in Lebanon to about 15,000.

The pullback, say analysts, is both a reward for Lebanese support of Syria's stand against the US-led war in Iraq and one of several moves to appease the US, which has turned a sharp eye toward Damascus since toppling Saddam Hussein. But analysts maintain that Syria will remain in Lebanon and continue to use its presence there as a bargaining chip in dealings with the US and in future peace negotiations with Israel.

Indeed, Syrian soldiers continue to man an antiaircraft position here on a flat-topped hill overlooking the southern end of Beirut airport and the sparkling Mediterranean Sea. The bulk of the remaining troops are deployed in the Bekaa Valley, in the northern Lebanese port city of Tripoli, and in the strategic mountains of the Christian heartland overlooking Beirut.

Syrian forces entered Lebanon in 1976 to help quell the initial stages of the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war and have remained in the country ever since. But 13 years after peace was restored, many Lebanese, particularly the Christian community, chafe at Syria's continued pervasive influence, and call for a full troop withdrawal and a revision of the one-sided relationship.

Michael Young, a Lebanese political com- mentator, says that the latest Syrian troop redeployment was recompense for Lebanon's tacit backing of Damascus' position on the Iraq war. "The Syrians [are in] a cycle in Lebanon where they do have to give something to the Lebanese periodically," he says. "In the end, has anything changed fundamentally? The answer is no."

Analysts say that the redeployment may also have been a gesture toward the US which, since the Iraq war, has placed Syria under considerable diplomatic pressure to stay out of Iraq and rein in militant anti-Israel groups such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Lebanon's Hizbullah.

The troop redeployment coincided with a scheduled hearing in Congress to discuss the Syria Accountability Act, which threatens sanctions against Damascus unless it ends its support for radical groups, ceases its pursuit of ballistic missiles and chemical and biological weapons, halts illegal oil imports from Iraq, and withdraws its forces from Lebanon. John Bolton, the US undersecretary of State for arms control, was due to brief Congress on Syria's alleged weapons of mass destruction program, but the hearing was postponed at the last minute reportedly due to objections by the CIA and other intelligence agencies over a classified portion of Mr. Bolton's speech in which he charges that Syria's development of chemical and biological weapons had reached a stage where they threatened stability in the Middle East. With the Bush administration facing increasing heat over the accuracy of intelligence regarding Iraq's weapons program, the CIA reportedly said that Bolton's assertion was unverifiable. The hearing has been rescheduled for Sept. 16.

The postponement of the hearing, however, reinforces the impression in Syria that the administration is lifting its pressure on Damascus. "I think the pressure has lessened quite a lot," says Mohammed Aziz Chucri, professor of international law at Damascus University. "I don't know if this is a tactical move to change enemies. Now Iran may be the target." He says that Syria "has complied with many of the American requests."

In recent weeks, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has pushed through a decree limiting the ruling Baath Party's grip on the government, relaxed regulations on foreign exchange, released political prisoners, and taken steps to combat corruption. But some key US demands remain pending. Militant groups in Damascus have not completely shut down activities, although they are keeping a low profile; Hizbullah continues to deploy its fighters in south Lebanon along the border with Israel, although they, too, are keeping a low profile; and a full withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon is not expected anytime soon, despite continued demands by Washington.

"We have to state that Syria is occupying a country which is not part of it," Secretary of State Colin Powell said on Saturday in an interview with the Paris-based Monte Carlo radio. "I am satisfied that Syria has withdrawn more troops from Lebanon in recent weeks and hope that the day will come when the Syrian Army returns home with the consent of all concerned."

But Syria has a vested interest in maintaining its influence over Lebanon, says Mr. Young, citing the presence in Lebanon of Palestinian refugees, Hizbullah, and Sunni Muslim militants which can all be used as bargaining chips in dealings with the US and future peace negotiations with Israel. "I think the only thing that will really loosen them up is an overall peace deal where essentially the Syrians will have to sell these assets they have in exchange for peace," he says.

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