Analysis / Syria Quits Lebanon - Damascus Got the Message

CAIRO - Some five years after the Israel Defense Forces's withdrawal from Lebanon, Syria is following suit. A handful of Syrian soldiers will remain today in Lebanon to participate in a modest ceremony to mark the occasion; but immediately thereafter United Nations envoys will be able to report that, in the field at least, Syria has fulfilled its obligations vis-a-vis the section of Security Council Resolution 1559 that demands it withdraw its forces from Lebanon.

The other part of the resolution, which demands the disarming of Hezbollah and "the remaining militias" still awaits its turn.

The farewell tour by the head of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon, General Rustum Ghazaleh, and the resignation of the head of the Lebanese intelligence service, Jamil al-Sayyid, are perhaps the most important achievements secured by the Lebanese - the management of internal security by means of Lebanon's army alone.

The Lebanese have no doubts now about this being the end of the Syrian military presence in their country. The reentry of Syrian forces will now be considered an invasion by a foreign state, just like the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

Does this mean the end of Syrian influence in Lebanon?

"The natural tendency is to say that Syria will continue to direct Lebanese politics from Damascus," says an Egyptian government official. "But if one analyzes the reasons for the Syrian withdrawal, one cannot help but say that this is also a withdrawal on the political plane."

According to the Egyptian official's analysis, Syria is not withdrawing due to U.S. or European pressure, and not because of Resolution 1559, which was passed last August and failed to make an impression on Damascus at the time. "Syria is withdrawing because of Lebanese pressure, and one shouldn't forget Egypt and Saudi Arabia's contribution to hastening the pullout," he says.

This "contribution" came for the most part in the wake of the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in February. But the most significant catalyst for the Syrian withdrawal is in fact Lebanese public opinion.

Five years ago exactly, the Lebanese daily Al-Nahar published an open letter to Bashar Assad, prior to his becoming Syrian president. In the letter, the Al-Nahar editor in chief, Jubran Tueni, demanded that Syria uphold its obligation under the 1989 Taif Agreement to withdraw its forces "to positions in the Bekaa" within two years of the signing of the accord. Ever since publication of the letter, Lebanese opposition newspapers have consistently demanded the withdrawal of Syrian forces, and increasingly so in the wake of the IDF's pullout in May 2000.

Demonstrations by Christians, Druze, students and political movements against the Syrian presence led to four previous pullouts, with the number of Syrian troops in Lebanon dropping from 30,000 to some 14,000 on the eve of the current withdrawal.

The significant turnaround came with the assassination of Hariri and the direct accusations leveled at Syria and the heads of the Lebanese security mechanisms whose appointments were ratified by Damascus. Mass demonstrations, the collapse of the pro-Syrian government in Lebanon, and the possibility that Syria would lose its ability to influence not only the results of the parliamentary elections scheduled for the end of May but also Lebanese policy toward Syria led to an acceleration of the withdrawal process.

Nevertheless, Lebanon is still committed to a common policy with Syria when it comes to the regional peace process. Lebanese opposition leaders have also declared that they have no intention of dismantling either the political or the economic cooperation between the countries, and they certainly have no plans to be seen to be in a hurry to sign a peace deal with Israel.