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Bush Slams Partial Syrian Exit

2002/12/16 Bashar Assad headshot, as Syrian President
AP
Trying to ease incessant Arab and international pressure and the risk of isolation, Syrian President Bashar Assad is moving to pull his troops in Lebanon back toward the Syrian border. But the step, short of a full withdrawal, was bluntly rejected Friday by U.S. President George W. Bush.

Assad was expected to announce the pull-back in an address to parliament Saturday in Damascus, a Syrian diplomat said Friday. The previously unscheduled speech comes after a rough week for Assad, beginning with the resignation of his allied government in Lebanon and ending with the Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah telling him face-to-face to get all his forces out of Lebanon quickly.

But a redeployment alone — moving Syrian forces to eastern Lebanon, closer to the Syrian border — would likely not satisfy Arab leaders and was dismissed by Bush as a "half-measure."

"When the United States and France say withdraw, we mean complete withdrawal, no halfhearted measures," Bush said.

Bush said he wanted Syria's 15,000 troops and its intelligence agents out of Lebanon by May, when Lebanese parliament elections are to be held. "This is non-negotiable. It is time to get out," he said in an interview published Friday in New York Post.

Bush told the paper there was no threat of military action. But Arab nations are worried Washington or the United Nations could take tough measures to push Syria into leaving Lebanon, which Damascus has dominated for more than a decade. So Saudi Arabia and Egypt are leading Arab efforts to get Damascus to go beyond just a redeployment and quickly remove all Syrian troops.

Syria also faces pressure from the opposition in Lebanon, which succeeded in forcing the resignation of the pro-Damascus government on Monday with a giant protest by 25,000 people, fueled by anger over the assassination last month of former prime minister Rafik Hariri. Many Lebanese blame Syria and the Lebanese government in the killing, though the two deny any involvement.

The 'Syria Out' campaign in Lebanon has been largely peaceful. However, on Friday night a concussion bomb exploded outside a Syrian military post in Baalbek, eastern Lebanon, security officials said, speaking on customary condition of anonymity. The bomb, tossed from a moving car, caused no casualties or damage.

Lebanese Defense Minister Abdul-Rahim Murad — a member of the pro-Syria government, which remains in place as a caretaker — said Assad was expected to announce "a redeployment to the Bekaa region" in eastern Lebanon, Murad told The Associated Press.

Such redeployments in the past have seen some Syrian troops return to their home country. But Murad said Assad's speech would not call for a full withdrawal.

He suggested Syria wants to keep some troops in the country on a long-term basis, saying a complete removal of the troops would have to be negotiated between Syria and Lebanon's governments — as called for in a 1989 Arab-brokered agreement, the Taif Accord.

Under the Taif Accord, he said, the two governments will "discuss the number of troops required to stay and outline the areas where they would be stationed until the (Arab-Israeli) issue is settled."

In Moscow, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem said he believed Assad would announce a pullback in the speech.

Moallem said he informed Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that Syrian and Lebanese leaders have agreed on an action plan for carrying out the Taif Accord. But he would not comment on a timetable. "You will hear details of this plan soon," he said.

The Taif agreement calls for Syria to pull its troops in Lebanon back to the border, then for the two countries to negotiate their withdrawal.

Syria has said in behind-the-scenes diplomacy with Arab nations this week that it wants to keep 3,000 troops and early-warning stations in Lebanon, according to an Arab diplomat in Cairo.

But Egypt and Saudi Arabia have told Syria that that is not enough and have pressed Damascus on a timetable that would complete the removal of all troops by April, the diplomat said.

Syrian troops first entered Lebanon in 1976 and were backed by the Arab League as a peacekeeping force in the country's 1975-1990 civil war. When the civil war ended, the troops remain and have been the keystone of Syrian domination of Lebanon's politics.

Syria has redeployed its troops toward the border several times since 2000, and each time bringing out some troops — lowering levels from 35,000 soldiers. The last pullback into eastern Lebanon took place in September, but Syrian troops remain in central Lebanese mountains overlooking Beirut and in northwestern regions.

Last month, Syrian Information Minister Mahdi Dakhlallah said if there was a new redeployment, some troops would return to Syria.

Syria's ambassador to the United States, in an interview published Friday, said withdrawal of Syrian troops would not be abrupt. "We are going to leave Lebanon. But we will not do this in a way that is chaotic. We will not create a vacuum," Imad Moustapha told U.S. newspaper The Plain Dealer.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said there had been informal discussions in the U.N. Security Council about deploying peacekeeping forces in Lebanon to cover the withdrawal of Syrian troops.

But Murad, the Lebanese defense minister, said it would be "a great mistake to send foreign forces to Lebanon." Some Lebanese "will oppose and confront," he said in a television interview. "Why have forces that could cause further internal divisions?