The buzz on the Syrian street: Let's leave Lebanon

Some 60 Syrian intellectuals sent a letter to Beirut in support of democracy.

One week ago, Hind Aboud took the two-hour drive from Damascus to Beirut to pay her respects to Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister who was assassinated last month. On his grave she placed photos of two of Syria's most sacred monuments - the Umayyid mosque and St. Paul's church - and left what she called a letter from all Syrians.

"Hariri is not only for the Lebanese, but he is for the Syrians as well," says Ms. Aboud, a Syrian lawyer who works in Damascus and considers Mr. Hariri a role model for all Arabs.

Syrians share a special affinity to the Lebanese because of strong historical, family, and business ties: a large portion of the Syrian and Lebanese population have relatives living across the border.

But many Lebanese blame Syria for Mr. Hariri's murder, and many of the Syrians interviewed say they are feeling resentful, isolated, and fearful of the growing anti-Syrian sentiment. As the international pressure mounts for Syria to withdraw its 14,000 troops from Lebanon, many here agree that it's time for their troops to go.

"We helped the Lebanese and we stood by them as a neighboring country, and now they are practicing their full freedom and democratic right by asking us to leave," says Aboud.

In the first two weeks after Hariri's death, the Syrian government remained relatively silent in the face of mounting calls from the Lebanese street and from the US and France for Syria to quit Lebanon. But according to Joshua Landis, a specialist on Syria now residing in Damascus who runs, the mood in Damascus relaxed this week as Syria's President Bashar Assad spoke with the European and US press about withdrawing from Lebanon.

"There has been great relief in the last few days, ever since the president came out of the Palace and began to really address the issue of Lebanon," says Mr. Landis. "His speech to parliament [Wednesday] was very reassuring. He said that Syria is going to get out of Lebanon in a few months, unequivocally."

Syria says it is searching for an "Arab" solution to the international calls for Syria to release its political and military grip on Lebanon by focusing on implementing the 1989 Taif Accord, which ended the civil war in Lebanon and calls for a gradual withdrawal of Syrian troops (see story, page 1). Syrian troops have been in Lebanon since the mid-1970s.

For Syria, Lebanon remains geographically important because of tensions with its arch-enemy Israel, whose troops reached the Bekaa Valley in 1982. Syria also fears that a pullout could diminish its influence over the Lebanese militia group Hizbullah, another strategic playing card for Syria, before any concrete peace agreement is reached with Israel.

While many Syrians say that the time has come for Syria to quit Lebanon, they worry that sectarian violence could again break out without Syria's presence. Many here also express the hope that the democratic awakening taking place in Lebanon could seep over into their own country.

Michel Kilo, a prominent Syrian opposition figure, last week joined 60 other Syrian writers and intellectuals to send a letter of solidarity to the Lebanese expressing their support for democratic expression and for the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon.

Mr. Kilo, who also signed a similar letter sent to President Assad last week, says that support for withdrawal is not only among intellectuals and activists. "The Syrian people were scared that the US and the Europeans would turn against their country because of the situation in Lebanon," he says. "They are happier that Lebanon will be a freer country and that it will be able to make its own decisions."

Reports of attacks against Syrian workers in Lebanon in the past two weeks have kept many Syrians from traveling to Lebanon.

"People are not going unless they really have to go," says Yassin Touma, a taxi driver who works the Damascus-Beirut route daily. Mr. Touma, like many other Syrians, blames the US and Israel for the death of Hariri and says that the assassination was meant to isolate Syria and torment the area.

The US "killed Hariri to put pressure on Syria and to make things difficult between the Lebanese and the Syrians," says Touma. "And not everybody is against Syria. Many Lebanese are not. But we are only seeing the people in the streets."

For now, Syrians are waiting for signs that things could let up.

"I really appreciate the democratic movement that is happening right now in Lebanon," says Aboud, who heard slogans like "Death to Syria" while she was in Beirut visiting Hariri's grave. "But what really hurts is how they are insulting the Syrians. We understand that they are hurt and bitter. I think they should be careful and open minded for our futures because we have a lot in common, economically and culturally."

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