The aged and battered Syrian Army truck lumbered to a halt in a thick cloud of gray diesel smoke as a soldier shoved a rock beneath a back wheel and another lifted the hood to inspect the engine.
It was not an auspicious start to the redeployment of 14,000 Syrian soldiers from Lebanon, which formally got under way Monday following a presidential summit in Damascus.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Lebanese President Emile Lahoud said that Syrian troops will immediately pull back from northern and central Lebanon to the Bekaa Valley in the east, near Syria's border. But a complete troop withdrawal will be deferred until after later negotiations. And for many Lebanese, the departure of Syrian troops is far less relevant than the dismantling of Syria's extensive intelligence network.
"The Syrian military intelligence is involved in everything from the border of Israel in the south to the border of Syria in the north. They are running the military, the economy, and the politics of Lebanon," says a retired Lebanese military intelligence officer.
There has been no comment yet from Damascus on the future of Syrian military-intelligence agents in Lebanon, but analysts here doubt that they can remain once the regular army has left.
Still, Syrian troops are apparently feeling more vulnerable than usual given the recent unprecedented outpouring of anti-Syrian sentiment on the streets of central Beirut.
A hand grenade thrown on Friday from a passing car at a Syrian position in the Bekaa town of Baalbek underlined the vulnerability of Syrian forces.
Indeed, Syria is looking to the Lebanese Army to provide security for Syrian military units based in the Bekaa, according to a Lebanese Army officer. "They are worried about being attacked by individuals or being harassed by protesters," the Lebanese officer says, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Several residents of Anjar, a town near the Syrian border and the location of Syrian military-intelligence headquarters, were arrested for holding candlelight vigils following the Feb. 14 assassination of Rafik Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister.
The first stage of Syria's redeployment involves 4,000 to 5,000 troops moving from the mountains near Beirut and from Tripoli in the north to the Hammana-Mdeirej-Ain Dara line that cuts across this lofty mountain pass between Beirut and the Bekaa Valley.
Monday in Aley, a resort town above Beirut, Syrian troops lounged around their shell-pocked apartment buildings. There was little indication that they were preparing to leave. Washed uniforms and other laundry still hung from windows. In the Syrian camps spread along the gentle grassy slopes behind the Bekaa towns of Chtaura and Zahle, soldiers played football or lounged in the sun while sentries stood guard at the entrances decorated with the Syrian national colors and faded pictures of former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad.
In Rayak, a former rail junction in the center of the Bekaa, Syrian soldiers wearing red tin helmets direct traffic through the narrow streets. In stark contrast to the blatant anti-Syrian sentiment displayed at the ongoing street protests in central Beirut, in Rayak old fears die hard. "We are all for Syria here," says a toothless old man quietly, before adding: "Don't talk to the people here or it may cause you problems."
Despite the domestic and international pressure to remove Syrian troops from Lebanon, there was a time when they were treated with more warmth by the Lebanese and even the United States. The Syrian-dominated Arab Deterrent Force helped quell the initial stages of the civil war when they entered Lebanon in 1976 to prevent the Palestinian and Lebanese leftist forces from defeating the Christian militias. In June 1982, Syrian troops fought against invading Israeli forces in the Bekaa Valley and the mountains of the southern Chouf. In 1987, Syria dispatched 7,500 troops into west Beirut at the request of Muslim leaders to end fighting between militias.
While Syria's military interventions during the turbulent civil war years generally brought some measure of stability, they were often carried out ruthlessly. In 1990, Syrian troops executed dozens of captured Lebanese soldiers who had sided with General Michel Aoun, a former Lebanese Army commander, in his ill-fated attempt to drive Syria out of Lebanon.
In exchange for Syria's participation in the US-led coalition against Iraq following the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, the US stood aside as Damascus used jets and tanks to decisively smash General Aoun's uprising, paving the way for the end of the civil war and the beginning of Syria's domination of Lebanon.
But for the past 15 years, Syrian troops have stood on the sidelines as a reconstituted Lebanese Army and paramilitary police took over security duties.
"The Syrian Army just maintains a presence here, it is showing the flag that's all," says Timur Goksel, a university lecturer in Beirut. "It's in very poor shape physically and materially.... It's just a reminder to the Lebanese who's running the place."
Since 2000, a series of withdrawals and redeployments have seen Syria's troop strength in Lebanon fall from around 35,000 to 14,000.
Although the Syrian Army represents the visible face of Pax Syriana, real power lies in the hands of Syrian military intelligence. According to the former Lebanese intelligence officer, there are about 20 Syrian intelligence headquarters, usually in nondescript buildings, each one self-contained and stocked with weapons and fitted with interrogation cells. "They can do what they want there, nobody watches them," the former intelligence officer says.
Using a system of reward and punishment, the Syrian network has infiltrated and corrupted much of Lebanon's judiciary and security bodies, the source says. "If you want to remain strong, you ignore your [Lebanese] chain of command and work directly for the nearest Syrian military intelligence office," he says. "By obeying the Syrians, you stay protected."
For most Lebanese, it's not troop pullout but the departure of the feared intelligence apparatus that will signal the end of Syrian influence here.