Saudis Warn Syria: Leave Lebanon

Saudi officials told Syrian President Bashar Assad on Thursday that he must soon begin fully withdrawing troops from Lebanon or face strains in Saudi-Syrian ties, a Saudi official said. Assad promised only to study the idea of a partial withdrawal by later this month.

The kingdom took a tough line as Assad met with the Saudi leader, Crown Prince Abdullah and other officials in Riyadh. So far, Damascus has resisted Arab pressure for a quick pullout from Lebanon.

Saudi officials told Assad the kingdom insists on the full withdrawal of all Syrian military and intelligence forces from Lebanon and wants it to start "soon," according to a Saudi official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Assad said he is trying all he can to resolve the problem but that not everything is up to him, the official told The Associated Press. The Saudis countered that the situation was his problem and warned that if Damascus refuses to comply, it would lead to tensions in Saudi-Syrian ties, the official said, speaking by phone from Riyadh.

The troops, currently numbering 15,000, were originally deployed during Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war — ostensibly as peacekeepers — and Syria has held sway over Lebanese politics ever since.

But the nation has come under international pressure to withdraw the troops in the wake of the Feb. 14 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who opposed their presence.

Assad said he would study the possibility of carrying out a partial withdrawal before an Arab summit scheduled March 23 in Algeria.

The Saudis rejected a Syrian request that the summit officially ask Syria to withdraw, which would provide political cover by giving the pullback an Arab endorsement, the Saudi official said.

Before the talks in Riyadh, Syria told Arab countries it needs to keep 3,000 troops and early-warning stations inside Lebanon to maintain its security, an Arab diplomat in Cairo said Thursday. But Arab countries maintained the Syrian demand is not viable, the diplomat told the AP.

Arab leaders meeting in Cairo publicly urged Syria to follow through on a 1989 accord to withdraw its troops from neighboring Lebanon, with no timetable set — even as they negotiated behind the scenes to push Syria to move quickly.

Syria has said it would comply with the accord. But an Arab diplomat involved in efforts to resolve the crisis said the Syrians told Arab leaders earlier this week that they want a new, broader arrangement — including resuming peace talks with Israel — as part of any troop withdrawal from Lebanon. Syria wants Israelis to leave the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau they captured in the 1967 Mideast war.

The diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Syria still wants to keep about 3,000 troops in Lebanon "for the time being" — without giving a timetable — and to keep "early monitoring stations" in eastern Lebanon.

The Syrian army already operates radar stations in Dahr el-Baidar, on mountain tops bordering Syria. Israeli warplanes have attacked the sites in the past.

Saudi Arabia and Egypt consider such Syrian terms unworkable, the Arab diplomat said, adding: "The Syrians are looking for a broader political deal, and nobody is sure that anyone can deliver."

Assad has given varying estimates for the timing of a withdrawal, from less than two months to at least a year or not until Mideast peace is achieved.

Assad told Time magazine that the troops would be out "maybe in the next few months. Not after that." In a separate interview published Monday in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, Assad said withdrawal would require "serious guarantees. In one word: peace."

The 3,000-troop number has been floated in Beirut before, when pressure for a pullout heated up last year.

The diplomat's remarks came on the sidelines of an Arab League foreign ministers meeting, where Arab officials urged Syria to follow through on the 1989 Arab-brokered Taif accord, which called for a redeployment to eastern Lebanon near the border, and a full, negotiated pullout to follow.

Syria never complied — one of the sources of anti-Damascus discontent in Lebanon — but under growing pressure said last month it is willing to do so. It promised to move troops closer to its border, but hasn't yet done so.

"We have to contain, with all our capabilities, the existing big problems and to shift the current situation into a safer position," Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said. "No doubt the Taif agreement has its own role in solving the problem at this stage."

None of the Arab officials delivering speeches ahead of private consultations gave any indication of how soon a withdrawal might come.

Notably absent from the Arab League meeting were Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa and his Lebanese counterpart, Mahmoud Hammoud, who serves in a caretaker role with the rest of the pro-Syrian Lebanese government that resigned Monday.

The Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, stopped by the Arab League but did not stay for the full meeting, heading instead to the Egyptian resort city of Sharm el-Sheik to meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

A wave of anti-Syrian protests began at the funeral of Hariri, whose killing was widely blamed on Syria and the Damascus-allied Lebanese government. Both governments deny any role. The protests continued — larger, louder and bolder — until the Lebanese government resigned.