What the Lebanese fear most is not Syria's army but a power vacuum

Assad's troops are pulling back, but who will replace them in Lebanon?

Robert Fisk reports from the Bekaa Valley

The Independent

13 March 2005

As the last Syrian troops moved through the storms and blizzards of Mount Lebanon into the Bekaa Valley yesterday morning, they passed beneath the glowering statue of Basil al-Assad, the man who would have been president of Syria had he not died in a Damascus road accident. Seated astride his favourite horse, dressed in military uniform, wearing a peaked cap and graced with three withered wreaths, he has been guarded this past decade by two equally glowering Syrian intelligence officers. "No photo," they growled at me when they saw my camera. But there's a problem.

For when the last of the Syrian troops leave Chtaura, along with their mukhabarat spooks, who will guard Basil's statue? It was erected by local Lebanese businessmen with an eye to gaining Syria's favours, but the Syrians can hardly cart the whole thing off to Damascus. Unguarded, no one wants to bet on its future. "Do you want to buy it?" one local shopkeeper asked me sarcastically. "We could sell it to you." The owner of a shoe store was more prosaic. "We'll demolish it," he said, and snapped his fingers in the air.

Not that the people of Chtaura have been writhing under Syria's military heel. "When they first came here, there were tens of thousands of them," the owner of the Adidas gun store said. "But over the years, we got used to them and they were friendly enough, just part of the scenery. They didn't bother us and they bought food from the shops, so they contributed to the economy." Not that there's much economy left in Chtaura. The Park Hotel, its interiors cloaked with curtains, boasts no guests. Most of the shops are shut and every businessman has changed his Lebanese pounds into US dollars. The shade of Rafiq Hariri's murder lies heavy over the towns of Lebanon's Bekaa Valley.

"Look, they've been here for almost three decades and enough is enough," the man in Assy Sport remarked without much enthusiasm. "But the real danger is a vacuum. The Lebanese army must arrive before they leave and take over all their positions. We cannot afford to have a gap." It's not difficult to understand why the Lebanese fear a sudden withdrawal. They do not want the old Syrian bases to be suddenly filled with pro-Syrian militias. Everyone these days is reliving their memories of the civil war.

A few of them never lost their anger, including a man who could have been only a child when the war began. "The Syrians came here to take our money and our heritage and we Lebanese let foreigners come and mess with us. We sell everything that belongs to us. I'm going to the big rally in Beirut on Monday to support the opposition. We need real freedom here and we won't have it as long as others are in our country."

Behind the international highway, Syrian troops in steel helmets and with bayonets fixed guard the entrance to the second most important Syrian intelligence post in the Bekaa Valley - their headquarters, home to Brigadier General Rustum Gazale, is just down the road in the town of Aanjar. Three of the mukhabarat men insisted they didn't have a departure date, but all equally insisted that they had heard their President - Bashar, Basil's brother - say that they would all leave by the end of April and had no reason to doubt this information.

The last Syrian positions in the mountains were abandoned in the early hours and one of Syria's big radar bases near Mdeirej - used to monitor Israeli overflights - has been dismantled. Only a few Syrian trucks are left on the lower slopes, many covered in snow after the night's blizzard. It does not look like an army in retreat - certainly not like an army of occupation - but its departure on this bleak, cold morning provided an astonishing contrast to its arrival in June 1976. I was here in this little town of boutiques 29 years ago and watched the hundreds of Syrian armoured vehicles pour down the international highway towards Beirut. Three tanks were parked in the long grass outside the town like old dogs resting on a hot day. President Carter had given his blessing to the deployment since the Arab League had granted Syria a peacekeeping role to end the civil war.

I had stood on the same pavement then and listened to another shopkeeper mulling over the cost of free speech in the new, humbled Lebanon. "It is always nice to have visitors," he said archly. "And it is always nice when they go home again." And now those "visitors" are going home, leaving not a little fear in their wake. The desire of everyone in Chtaura to avoid being identified spoke for itself.

"Look," a man in a cell phone shop said quietly, "the Syrian border is only 15 miles away and the border is open. You know that Syria has many supporters in Lebanon. What makes you think that the mukhabarat men can't just come back without their guns showing? What makes you believe that Syria's influence will end now? It won't. Syria will always be located to the east, just up there on the next mountain chain."

Certainly, few of the soldiers trucked through the town yesterday could be blamed for Syria's sojourn. The man who first sent this army here -President Hafez al-Assad, Basil's father - is long dead. And most of them were not even born when the first Syrian tanks arrived at the gates of Chtaura.

WARS AND PEACE

1918: After more than 400 years of mainly Ottoman rule, Lebanon is occupied by British and French forces.

1920: State of Lebanon created and League of Nations grants mandate to France.

1940: Lebanon comes under control of Vichy French government. A year later, it is occupied by Free French and British troops. Independence declared on 26 November.

1943: France recognises independence and agrees to transfer power. Three years later, British forces leave.

1967: Palestinian population rises following second Arab-Israeli War.

1973: Israeli commandos raid Beirut and kill three Palestinian leaders. Lebanese government resigns next day.

1975: Civil war erupts as Christian and Muslim communities clash. One year later, Syrian intervention begins.

June 1982: Israel launches full-scale invasion of Lebanon to counter Palestinian activity.

September 1982: Following assassination of president -elect Bashir Gemayel, Israeli forces occupy West Beirut, and Christian militias enter Palestinian refugee camps, murdering civilians.

1983: Deal struck for Israeli withdrawal.

1988: Lebanon effectively now has two governments. Christian in East Beirut and Muslim in West Beirut.

1990: Civil war ends as Syrian Air Force attacks presidential palace and Christian leaders take refuge in French embassy.

1991: National Assembly dissolves all militias, but Syria-backed Hizbollah allowed to remain.

1993: Israel launches heaviest attack in a decade on Hizbollah forces in the south.

2000: Israeli forces withdraw from southern Lebanon.

2005: Former prime minister Rafiq Hariri assassinated in Beirut. Cabinet resigns after two weeks of anti-Syria rallies. Growing calls for Syrian troops to withdraw.

2005: 14,000 remaining Syrian peacekeepers begin withdrawal to border areas.