Last Syrian soldier crosses border, ending presence in Lebanon

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

MASNAA, Lebanon -- The difference between Syria's entry and exit was stark.

Twenty-nine years ago, its tanks and troops stormed into Lebanon, fighting in the mountains and descending on Beirut to restore order to a city ravaged by civil war. On Tuesday, Syria's last soldier quietly walked home across the border, ending the military domination.

Lebanon is at relative peace today. Many of the country's one-time warring factions united in the wake of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on Feb. 14 -- and the world, which once tolerated Syria's intervention, told Damascus in one voice to get out.

The Syrian departure Tuesday was largely quiet, except for a modest military ceremony where military brass from both sides exchanged medals at an air base near the border.

A Syrian commander told Lebanese troops at the ceremony: "Brothers in arms, 'til we meet again." The Lebanese replied, "'Til we meet again" -- using the Arabic phrase "ila liqaa," a breezier goodbye than the more formal "farewell."

"Brothers in arms, thank you for your sacrifices," a Lebanese commander then told the Syrians.

Lebanese army commander Michel Suleiman pledged continued cooperation and credited the Syrian army with ending the 1975 to 1990 civil war and rebuilding Lebanese forces. "Together we shall always remain brothers in arms in the face of the Israeli enemy," Suleiman said.

The two dozen or so Lebanese who stood at the border were less charitable as they watched the last 250 Syrians leave -- the remnants of a one-time mighty force of 40,000 that ran the country virtually unchallenged since entering in 1976 as peacekeepers.

"I feel like someone who was suffocated and jailed and has finally emerged from jail," said Shaaban al-Ajami, mayor of the Lebanese border village of Majdal Anjar.

"We don't want to say goodbye. We are happy to see them leave," said Hussein Mansour, 27, who stood at the border holding the lone Lebanese flag.

With the Syrians gone, Lebanese now look ahead to an election that should prove freer of Syrian influence but still runs the risk of sinking into violence. The anti-Syrian opposition is hoping to defeat Damascus's political allies at the ballot box.

Syria still wields influence here. Lebanese President Emile Lahoud is a staunch Syrian ally, Prime Minister Najib Mikati is a close friend of Syrian President Bashar Assad and the current parliament is dominated by pro-Syrians.

While the withdrawal relieves some of the pressure on Syria, Damascus still faces unrelenting U.S. demands to end its influence in Lebanon -- and U.N. calls for the disarming of its ally, the Hezbollah guerrilla group.

State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said the withdrawal was an important first step toward Syria's compliance with a U.N. Security Council resolution. But he said there were "lingering concerns" that Syria had not withdrawn all its intelligence agents, adding the Bush administration was looking forward to the report by a U.N. team sent to verify the withdrawal.

Eager to ease the international pressure, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa quickly informed U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in a letter that his country had complied with U.N. demands.

A report by Annan released Tuesday noted progress but said Damascus hasn't met several other provisions of U.N. Security Council resolution 1559. Annan said there had been no movement in other areas, including the requirement that militias be disarmed -- a clear reference to the Syrian- and Iranian-backed Hezbollah.

Hezbollah remains a potent military force and has refused to lay down its weapons. Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah on Monday repeated the stance -- which the Lebanese government has supported -- that Hezbollah "is not a militia. It is a resistance (movement)" so the U.N. resolution does not apply.

Syrian intelligence chief Rustom Ghazale, the general who was considered the de facto leader of Lebanon, crossed into Syria along with dozens of armed plainclothes agents in speeding cars. A few minutes later, the remaining 250 Syrian soldiers waved and flashed victory signs as they crossed the border in buses, trucks and other vehicles.

"Of course, we are happy to return to Syria," said a helmeted Syrian soldier, one of four on guard duty who said they were the last to remain in Lebanon after the bulk of the troops had left.

"That's all I have to say," the soldier said, waving his AK-47 assault rifle before he walked across the border and hopped into a pickup truck to join the three others for the trip home.

At the Jedeidit Yabous border point on the Syrian side -- a 10-minute drive away on the road to Damascus -- hundreds of Syrians waved flags, danced and climbed on the buses carrying the troops as they chanted: "God, Syria and Bashar only."

"I'm so happy they're back," said Noura Sabbagh, 16, a red rose in her hand that she hoped to give to a soldier.

For Syria, the withdrawal means the loss of a strategic card in the confrontation with arch-foe Israel. Lebanon also brought economic benefits for Syria, with up to 1 million Syrian workers going to the neighboring country of 3.5 million looking for better-paying jobs. Most have already left.

Opposition leader Walid Jumblatt was delighted.

"The Syrian tutelage is over," Jumblatt said. "If they had implemented Taif before we wouldn't have seen this insulting, humiliating scene for the Arab Syrian army," he told LBC television, referring to a 1989 deal that called for Syria's gradual withdrawal but was never implemented.

Syria's fortunes in Lebanon began to unravel in September when Damascus orchestrated a three-year extension of President Emile Lahoud's term.

Hariri's assassination -- a bombing Syria's opponents blamed on the pro-Syrian Lebanese government and its Syrian backers -- galvanized the opposition, which mounted huge "Syria out" protests, and encouraged the world to intervene.

Syrians found themselves facing a united world -- the West and even ally Russia -- plus Syria's traditional influential Arab friends Egypt and Saudi Arabia. France, Syria's longtime friend, set aside its differences over the Iraq war with Washington to draft a joint U.N. resolution demanding Syrian forces leave.

On Tuesday, Lebanon was free of foreign troops for the first time in nearly three decades -- Israeli forces withdrew in 2000. Now its various religious, political and sectarian factions must deal with each other without the Syrian umbrella.

Parliament opened debate Tuesday on the confirmation of Prime Minister Najib Mikati's new government, a first step to prepare for elections to take place by May 29.

Outside parliament, relatives of Lebanese jailed in Syria scuffled with the army and beat lawmakers' cars with the Lebanese flag during a demonstration demanding the release of their loved ones. Two protesters were loaded into an ambulance and two got first aid.

Associated Press reporter Albert Aji contributed to this report from Jdeidit Yabous, Syria.

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