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The New York Times > International > Middle East > Syria Offers Gradual Pullback of Its Troops From Lebanon

The New York Times > International > Middle East > Syria Offers Gradual Pullback of Its Troops From Lebanon: "March 6, 2005
Syria Offers Gradual Pullback of Its Troops From Lebanon

BEIRUT, March 5 - President Bashar al-Assad of Syria told the Syrian Parliament on Saturday that he planned to order a gradual pullback to Lebanese territory near Syria's borders, a move that amounted to a refusal to comply with international demands for the rapid, full withdrawal of all of his country's troops and intelligence agents from Lebanon.

President Assad said that his "gradual and organized withdrawal" would fulfill Syria's obligations under a United Nations mandate and under the Taif accord, a 15-year-old agreement that was negotiated with Arab nations and that Syria has never put into effect.

But he gave no timetable, and left several loopholes for the withdrawal. He said all troops would withdraw to the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon and eventually to areas "toward the border," phrasing that an aide later said meant on the Syrian side.

President Bush, in his weekly radio address, broadcast less than two hours before Mr. Assad spoke, made clear that he was demanding a full withdrawal before planned elections in Lebanon in May.

"Syria has been an occupying force in Lebanon for nearly three decades, and Syria's support for terrorism remains a key obstacle to peace in the broader Middle East," Mr. Bush said, escalating a weeklong campaign to pressure the Assad government.

"Today, America and Europe are standing together with the Lebanese people," he said, citing the Security Council resolution, which requires that "all foreign forces be withdrawn, and that free and fair elections be conducted without foreign influence."

After Mr. Assad's speech, a senior Syrian cabinet official, Buthaina Shaaban, told CNN that Mr. Assad had in fact meant that the troops would be moved to the Syrian side of the border.

France, which drafted the United Nations mandate in September with the United States, promptly released a statement through its Foreign Ministry, saying, "We are therefore expecting the complete withdrawal of its troops and services from Lebanon as soon as possible."

But members of the Syrian government have often contradicted or denied Mr. Assad's positions. Whether the Syrian minister's comments represented a sincere effort to clarify the speech, an attempt to subdue international pressure, or an expression of confusion within the government, Mr. Assad's often combative speech showed that he had no inclination to allow Syria's strong influence over Lebanon to be weakened.

"A Syrian pullout from Lebanon does not mean that Syria will vanish from Lebanon," he said. "We hope to have stronger relations with Lebanon in the future."

On Saturday, State Department officials stressed again that only a rapid, full withdrawal was acceptable.

"President Assad's announcement is not enough," said Darla Jordan, a State Department spokeswoman. "As President Bush said Friday, when the United States and France and others say withdraw, we mean complete withdrawal. No half-hearted measures."

Mr. Assad, sounding by turns like a lawyer pressing his case and a college professor giving a history lecture, sought to defend Syria's presence in Lebanon. He also said that he remained committed to peace in the Middle East but that Israel had blocked progress.

He addressed American assertions that Syria was supporting the insurgency in Iraq, insisting that his country had done everything it could to stop the flow of foreign fighters over its borders.

"Usually, the Americans say they cannot control their borders with Mexico," he said, with a laugh, "yet they tell us to control our borders."

Aides to President Bush, anticipating Mr. Assad's offer of a partial withdrawal, had said Friday it would be rejected.

"Anything less - phased withdrawal, partial withdrawal, leaving the intelligence agents in place - is a violation of the resolution," a senior aide said in a briefing. "How fair an election can Lebanon hold if the troops are there to intimidate voters, people running for election, or people now in office?"

But it is unclear what kind of additional pressure Mr. Bush and his European allies are willing to bring. In Martyrs' Square here, the scene of many demonstrations in recent weeks, thousands of protesters came Saturday morning to watch a broadcast of Mr. Assad's speech on projection screens, at times booing and jeering, or calling "Liar!" and "Bush sends his greetings!"

The protesters, many dressed in white, waved Lebanese flags and called for "freedom, sovereignty and independence."

For his part, Mr. Assad reserved some of his barbs specifically for the Lebanese opposition movement, accusing it of "marketing its politics" during the recent demonstrations that called for Syria's withdrawal. "If TV cameras were to zoom out" from Martyrs' Square, he said, they would show that "no one else was there."

Mr. Bush and his aides clearly believe that Mr. Assad is on the ropes and that continued pressure will force him out of Lebanon. The thought is that the presence of American forces in Iraq adds to the psychological pressure, though they have been careful not to say whether any military force overt or covert will be used to add to the pressure.

On Tuesday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and representatives from France and other European nations called on Syria to get out of Lebanon. Russia, a staunch Syrian ally, told Syria on Wednesday to leave Lebanon, signaling a lack of support for the country in the Security Council.

On Thursday, Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia told Mr. Assad to leave Lebanon quickly, emphasizing the lack of support for Syria in the Arab League.

"Sure, he says he's going to leave, but the way he does it and whether he will create problem is the most important thing," said Caline Chidiac, 30, an optometrist who has regularly attended opposition protests in Beirut. "We don't have solidarity yet so he is trying to create tension yet because people aren't sure about what is happening."

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom of Israel told Reuters that a gradual Syrian withdrawal would not be enough but that a complete pullout from Lebanon was "more tangible than ever." He also held out the possibility that a full pullout of troops could lead to peace between Lebanon and Israel.

Syria has had troops in Lebanon since 1976, when they entered as peacekeepers in the Lebanese civil war. But they have remained in the 15 years since the war ended, and have become a central element of power in Syria's control of Lebanese politics.

Syrian soldiers in many Lebanese mountain towns and in the Bekaa Valley on Saturday did not appear to be preparing for any movements, as many appeared to be going about their daily chores. The soldiers seemed to be taking many security measures to protect themselves from attack, including stepping up security details.

Hassan M. Fattah reported from Beirut for this article and David E. Sanger from Washington. Neil MacFarquhar contributed reporting from Beirut, and Katherine Zoepf from Damascus.

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