Lebanon's hollow victory

As bands played and flags were waved, Syrian troops left Lebanon after 29 years of occupation

By Robert Fisk at Masnaa frontier post, Lebanon

27 April 2005

They've gone. After 29 years in Lebanon, the very last Syrian soldiers - men who were not yet born when their army arrived - travelled through the border station, making victory signs and waving. What victory? What was there to wave about? Mission accomplished. That was what we were supposed to believe: this was an army of peace-keepers returning triumphantly home to Syria after decades of sacrifices. They even took their statues with them. Some Lebanese didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

But at least - and from these maudlin occasions one tries to see little flashes of dignity - the Syrian army, which originally came here on an Arab League peace-keeping mandate in 1976, was not humiliated in its last hours. The Lebanese army paraded hundreds of troops alongside the red-bereted Syrians and both presented arms to their respective commanders. There was a tinny Lebanese band and a rather more melodious band from the Syrian army that struck up "The Keel Row", to which the Syrians - rather than march - actually bounded along in time to the music, running past the reviewing stand of Lebanese and Syrian officers. Across the border in Syria, it all looked good on the state-run television, not least because a party of Syrian civilians had been brought by truck to the frontier to shower their soldiers with flowers.

The Syrian departure still seems unreal to many Lebanese despite the villagers from Majdal Aanjar, who performed the "dabke" dance at the frontier to express their joy at the final withdrawal, and their mayor who said that at last he was no longer suffocated. I arrived to report in Lebanon the day after the Syrians crossed the frontier in their tanks in June 1976 and yesterday I realised that I had outlasted them.

Having been shelled by them in east Beirut, shelled again in the Bekaa city of Zahle - a massacre which was not, of course, mentioned yesterday - and almost killed with them under Israeli air raids, they had become a fixture in my life. Always the same menacing "mukhabarat" men at the Chtaura crossroads, always the same military policemen outside Baalbek, the same scruffy special forces with their green helmets and Kalashnikovs and bayonets in the filthy, abandoned houses on the mountain road at Aley. So should we laugh or cry?

Those who cried were able to visit the dungeons where, years ago, they were held and tortured. Those who smiled included General Ali Habib, the chief of staff of the Syrian army, and the much more sinister figure of General Rustum Ghazale, Syria's head of military intelligence in Lebanon. The UN investigation team due to arrive here next week wants to know more about what General Ghazale knew about the murder of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri on 14 February. General Ghazale knows all, the Lebanese believe.

But yesterday it was General Habib who did the talking, praising the 250 Syrian special forces standing before him on the old French airbase at Rayak where the Lebanese had been prevailed upon to thank their military guests for their overlong stay. General Habib talked of sacrifice and laid a wreath before a newly built memorial to Syrian troops who have died in Lebanon since 1976. No one mentioned a figure, of course, only the battle against Israel which they fought in 1982. The true figure of Syrian dead is, in fact, about 12,000.

But it was a bleak moment for Syria. Her power and influence in Lebanon were trickling away even before the last soldiers departed. Ali Haj, the Lebanese officer who controlled the internal security forces - the man who planted evidence on the scene of Hariri's murder in Beirut - has been swept away. So has Jamil Sayed, the head of general security. And at the weekend, Raymond Azar, the head of Lebanese military intelligence, left mysteriously for Paris. He was on a "mission", according to the army. So why did he flee with his wife and two sons? Is he going to spill the beans to the French? All these were Syria's pets in Beirut; powerful - some might say dangerous - men. And they, too, have now gone.

The Syrians' sin, of course, was to outlast their welcome. We were not meant to think like that at Rayak yesterday. The Syrians, whose treatment of journalists normally runs between threats and shrieks of "no pictures", were sweetness and light. The special forces men wore smart camouflage fatigues and spotless poppy-red berets, and marched around the parade ground for the television cameras.

But you noticed the corners that had been cut, the hint of Syria's dire economic burdens. The tanks they have been taking out of Lebanon these past three weeks were rusty. The Lebanese army, now 60,000 strong, wore newer uniforms and marched with better precision and their armoured vehicles were all freshly painted. There is an illusion here, needless to say, because the Lebanese army cannot be used to quell civil disturbance - or civil war - lest it would, like its predecessor in 1976 and again in 1984, divide along sectarian lines.

Which is why one Syrian soldier, back in March, told me that his army would eventually have to be sent back to Lebanon when its war restarted. Yet I do not think so. Lebanon's new independence and its forthcoming "democracy" - this word should remain in quotation marks until after the 29 May elections - is supposed to bring the stability that the country needs after Hariri's murder.

And Syria, of course, leaves some very real bodies in the graves of Lebanon. There is Hariri. There was President Rene Moawad. And the Druze leader, Kemal Jumblatt, and the Grand Mufti, Sheikh Hassan Khaled. All had fallen out with Syria. All - save for Jumblatt - were murdered in massive bomb explosions. Which is why the Lebanese cry for "the truth" since Hariri's death was built upon a pile of other corpses. Will we find out? Can we discover the secrets of the past 29 years?

"God, Syria and Bachar only," is what the Syrians shouted at us as they crossed the border. They had already freighted out the steel statue of President Bachar Assad's dead brother, Basil, and several statues of their father, Hafez - their fate was obviously clear if they were left behind - so God, Syria and Bachar raise some interesting problems. I'm not sure about the God bit. Syria will continue to exist. But will Bachar's regime?

Syria's intervention

* 1976: Syrian troops enter Lebanon, torn by civil war, as peace-keepers with Arab League backing. Syrian troops increase to a peak of 40,000.

* 1982: Syrian forces in effect prevent Israel capturing all of Lebanon, after Israeli forces invade southern Lebanon in 1978. Syrian-backed militants Hizbollah move into Syrian-controlled eastern Lebanon.

* 1989: Taif Accord paves way for the end of civil war, in which 150,000 people were killed.

* 1990: Syrian forces defeat Christian-commanded units of Lebanese army, completing Syrian dominance of Lebanon.

* 2000: Syria pulls troops out of Beirut and coastal areas. Israeli troops withdraw from southern Lebanon.

* 2004: UN demands Syria withdraw troops from Lebanon and stop interfering in its politics.

* 14 February 2005: Former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri killed in bombing. Syria denies involvement. Thousands demonstrate against Syria in Beirut. UN orders an inquiry.

* 5 March 2005: Syria announces two-stage pullback of 14,000 troops to the Lebanese border. Days later, Syria begins pulling out troops.

* 26 April 2005: The last Syrian soldier leaves Lebanon.