Syria Is Reported to Agree to Full Lebanon Pullout


New York Times

March 12, 2005

DAMASCUS, Syria, March 12 - President Bashar al-Assad of Syria agreed to carry out a Security Council resolution calling for a complete Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, and offered to set a timetable for the pullout as well, according to the official Syrian news agency and a United Nations envoy.

The envoy, Terje Roed-Larsen, and the news agency, SANA, announced the agreement after Mr. Roed-Larsen and Mr. Assad met in Aleppo, Syria, on Saturday.

A commitment to a full troop withdrawal would be a shift in policy. Just over a week ago, Mr. Assad committed to moving Syrian troops toward the border but left the time frame vague. Then on Monday, he issued a joint statement with the Lebanese president, Émile Lahoud, saying that a Syrian pullout would have to wait for further negotiations with a future Lebanese government.

Mr. Roed-Larsen arrived in Aleppo early Saturday with tough words for Mr. Assad from the Security Council. The Washington Post quoted the envoy on Friday as warning that Syria risked punitive sanctions if it did not meet the terms of the resolution, which calls for a complete Syrian troop withdrawal and the disarming the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon.

Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and others in recent weeks have rebuffed Syria, signaling they would not veto efforts to impose international sanctions on Syria if it did not pull its troops out.

Mr. Roed-Larsen said in a statement on Saturday that Mr. Assad's commitment was "promising," adding that he would provide Secretary General Kofi Annan with further details about the pullout. He said Mr. Assad promised a timetable for the pullout once the Syrian Lebanese Supreme Council, made up of top officials from the two countries, meets in the coming week.

Syria has promised to withdraw its troops from Lebanon several times before. Under the terms of the Taif Accord, the 1989 agreement that set the terms for the end of Lebanon's civil war, Syria was to negotiate a full pullout with the Lebanese government, which has long been beholden to Damascus. That process was to have been completed by 1992.

While Syria's troop strength in the country has decreased in the past five years, to about 14,000 from 30,000 in mid-2000, it has had a continuous military presence there since 1976.