US rebuffs Assad offer to pull out of Lebanon

By Robert Fisk in Beirut

The Independent

06 March 2005

When he said the words, "We will withdraw," the Lebanese crowd in Martyr's Square shuffled and their flags moved and there was a hushed little chorus of approval. But that was all.

For the huge screen upon which President Bashar Assad of Syria was speaking from the parliament in Damascus last night contained other, darker messages for the crowd - perhaps for all of Lebanon. If the Syrian army is to withdraw from Lebanon - and to where remained vague - some of Mr Assad's remarks could have been interpreted as a threat.

He talked of the "shifting sands" in Lebanon and of how some of the "pillars" in Syria's relationship with the country - and here we obviously thought of the Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt - might have to be "replaced". Replaced? Is that what happened to ex-prime minister Rafik Hariri, killed in a massive bombing on 14 February? Was he replaced?

There were many other criticisms, veiled and unveiled; of the press, of "foreign interference", of UN envoy Terje Roed-Larsen. It was a familiar story: The Plot. Even the demonstrations against Syria in Martyr's Square - and it was an eerie experience to be among the demonstrators in Beirut at this moment - has been "planned beforehand". Before what, one asked? Before Hariri's assassination?

After all this, Mr Assad appeared to say the words many Lebanese had been waiting to hear: "We will withdraw our forces ... fully to the Bekaa region and later to the Lebanese-Syrian border areas." But when would they go to the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon, and when to the border - and did "fully" include the Syrian intelligence operatives, whose presence has particularly irked both the Lebanese and President Bush? And which side of the border? Syrian military intelligence headquarters are at Aanjar in the Bekaa - three miles from the border. In other words, will most of them just stay where they are?

President Assad's speech ran the whole gamut of Syrian policy towards Lebanon. His army had been invited into the country by the Lebanese president in 1976 during the Lebanese civil war - true - and had made many military sacrifices for Lebanon (although the Lebanese would have many qualifications to make).

Syria had always been prepared to withdraw, and had promised to do so under the 1989 Taif agreement to end the war - true, they fell a decade behind on their re-deployment - but this week, the Syrian-Lebanese co-ordinating committee would meet to discuss the date. This, Mr Assad announced, would show Syria was abiding by Taif and by the Franco-American UN Security Council Resolution 1559.

The US State Department replied: "President Assad's announcement is not enough ... When the US and France say withdraw, we mean complete withdrawal."

But UN Resolution 1559, as Mr Assad correctly pointed out, was passed only after the invasion of Iraq, and also demands the disarmament of the Hizbollah guerrilla movement, which drove the Israelis out of Lebanon in 2000. Israeli troops had been in Lebanon for 22 years. The Syrians have been here for 29 years. And President Assad didn't want the Hizbollah disarmed.