Text size

If the Lebanese in Martyrs' Square in Beirut expected to hear anything new from Syria's Bashar Assad during his address on the relocation of Syrian troops to the Bekaa Valley, they were mistaken. With blatant disregard for the Lebanese protesters, Assad made it clear that his forces will remain on Lebanese soil.

The Syrian president's clumsy attempt at suggesting that the relocation does not stem from Lebanese or foreign pressure, but is merely a continuation of a decision reached in the past to lower the number of Syrian soldiers in Lebanon from 40,000 to 14,000, was not convincing.

What was painfully absent from his speech was any reference to the resignation of the pro-Syrian government in Lebanon or the previous withdrawals of Syrian troops, both as a direct result of public pressure.

From Assad's point of view, his speech was intended to appear convincing for Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the U.S., the countries upon which his ability to maneuver in this crisis depend.

Judging from the responses of the Lebanese opposition leadership, it is doubtful whether the Syrian commitment to relocate and later withdraw its troops will satisfy the popular opposition or stall the momentum that it has gathered.

The crucial question now is not the Syrian withdrawal, which the opposition managed to achieve at least in part, but the method of choosing the interim government, who the prime minister will be, whether it will be possible to get rid of President Emile Lahoud, and how the parliamentary elections will be carried out - possibly in two months time.

Assad's "promise," which sounded more like a threat ("the withdrawal does not mean that Syria will be absent from Lebanon"), will force the opposition to seek to unify its ranks, even with those considered relatively loyal to Syria.

For example, Hezbollah is a particularly sought-after force that could determine the political strength of the opposition.

Pro-Syrian politicians may also alter their stance to a more "national" one in order to preserve their economic interests.

On the other hand, Syria is still capable of choking off Lebanon from any economic links with the Arab world, and Assad hinted in his address that Damascus is capable of preserving its interests in Lebanon by other means.

Assad's main effort now will be toward challenging the legitimacy of the Lebanese opposition. In his address he said the protesters in Beirut do not represent Lebanon, and tried to stain them with links to Israel. This he did by reference to the "May 17 agreement," a peace treaty signed between the Lebanese government and Israel in 1983, of which he said signs were evident in the current opposition movement.

To this well-tested method of besmirching opposition by linking it to Israel, Uri Lubrani, Israel's former policy adviser on Lebanon, said that Lebanese sources had asked that Israel apply pressure on Syria.

In any case, it is doubtful that in the current environment Syria has many alternative sources in Lebanon through whom to correct mistakes of the past.