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Syrian Resentment High In Lebanon

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Syria's looming shadow has long shrouded Lebanon, influencing big issues, like picking a president, down to the minutia of daily life, such as finding a stolen car in some areas to settling rival clan blood feuds in others.

But Lebanese resentment over Syria's presence, which had been long subdued by Damascus' political and military dominance, exploded into the public domain following the Feb. 14 killing of Rafik Hariri, the popular former prime minister credited with rebuilding Lebanon following its 1975-90 civil war.

Hariri's assassination, which many Lebanese blame on Syria and pro-Damascus authorities here, lifted the lid on bottled up hate and opposition toward this country's larger, powerful neighbor and the local politicians seen as supporting it.

Elated at forcing out Lebanon's pro-Damascus government, flag-waving, singing protesters crowded downtown Beirut on Tuesday, as Syrian President Bashar Assad indicated he would withdraw Syria's 15,000 troops from Lebanon "maybe in the next few months."

Russia joined Egypt and Saudi Arabia in trying to persuade Syria to withdraw all its troops, and Assad told Time magazine that the troops would be out "maybe in the next few months. Not after that." The troops were originally deployed during Lebanon's civil war — ostensibly as peacekeepers — and Syria has held sway over Lebanese politics ever since.

Syrian troops are now loathed by most Lebanese, CBS News Correspondent Elizabeth Palmer

, but originally they were welcomed by most. Syrian troops claim they're still there to stabilize a country ravaged by civil war.

"Syria is not doing a bad thing in Lebanon. Syria is there to help Lebanon," Yahya al-Aridi told Palmer.

Most recently, though, Lebanese opposition has called for nightly protests to demand an end to Syrian control and the capture of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri's assassins.

As politicians began searching for a replacement for ousted Prime Minister Omar Karami, opposition leaders planned to meet Wednesday to discuss how far to push their people power campaign and to ensure Damascus does not dominate Lebanon's new Cabinet.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia are trying to persuade Syria to accept a timetable for a complete withdrawal by April, Arab diplomats said on condition of anonymity. Russia, a traditional ally of Syria's, also called for a withdrawal on Tuesday, saying Damascus must respect the U.N. resolution demanding the troops leave.

A withdrawal is a key demand of the Lebanese opposition, the United States and United Nations.

About 2,000 protesters were in Beirut's central Martyrs' Square Tuesday evening, their numbers growing from a few hundred in the morning. With many Lebanese awaiting political developments, protesters numbered far fewer than the 25,000 who demanded — and obtained — Karami's resignation.

"We will continue the sit-in every day until the Syrian army leaves Lebanon and until the truth is determined in Hariri's assassination," said Sami Makhlouf, an 18-year-old student waving Lebanon's red and white flag with the green cedar tree in the middle.

In reaction to the Time report, Syria appeared to back off the comments. A Syrian official, speaking on condition of anonymity in Damascus, questioned whether it could occur within months, saying the Taif Accord was the basis for this matter.

The 1989 accord does not necessarily rule out a full withdrawal within months. It calls for a re-deployment to eastern Lebanon near the border, with a full pullout subject to negotiation.

Syria last week said it was committed to withdrawing according to the Taif agreement and Lebanon's defense minister said then a pullback to the border area would come soon. Both governments indicated there would not a full withdrawal for now, but that was before the government buckled in Beirut under popular pressure.

An opposition follow-up committee called on Lebanese to continue their "independence uprising" with peaceful nightly sit-ins at Martyrs' Square. But an opposition meeting Wednesday is to decide whether to continue larger protests or pursue political means.

Troops lifted the cordon they had imposed around the city center Monday and Lebanon reopened after a one-day strike to protest Hariri's Feb. 14 assassination.

In London, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier renewed calls for Syrian troops and intelligence agents to leave Lebanon.

"The Lebanese people have very courageously expressed their aspiration for freedom, their aspiration for a sovereign Lebanon. The Lebanese want to be masters of their own state," Barnier said.

Rice said Damascus must implement last year's U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, which demands a complete and immediate pullout. "The Syrians are out of step with where the region is going," she said.

Lebanon's dramatic developments — reminiscent of Ukraine's peaceful "Orange Revolution" and broadcast live across the Arab world, including in Syria where some people have satellite TV access — could provoke a strong Syrian response. There are fears it also could plunge this nation of 3.5 million into a period of uncertainty, political vacuum or worse.

Demonstrators in Beirut have been demanding Pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud's resignation, but some opposition members disagree over his fate.

Opposition legislator Butros Harb said demanding Lahoud's resignation "is not on the opposition's agenda."

But Druse opposition leader Walid Jumblatt, asked if he wants Lahoud to leave, told Al-Jazeera television: "Yes, that's my opinion ... because Lahoud is part of the security problem."

Opposition leaders also called for Lebanon's intelligence and security chiefs to quit over alleged dereliction and negligence following Hariri's assassination.

Lahoud instructed Lebanese investigators to cooperate fully with a U.N. team investigating Hariri's assassination, to ensure the culprits "face justice."

In a meeting Tuesday, Lahoud told the team's leader, Irish Deputy Police Commissioner Peter Fitzgerald, that "the truth is the basic goal."

Opposition leaders blame Lebanon's government and Syria for the assassination, which left 16 others dead as well, but both governments have denied involvement.