|UN sets April deadline for Syrian pullout
|Damascus offers to 'redeploy' troops based on Taif Accord
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has warned Syria it must withdraw all its forces from Lebanon by April in the latest escalation of tension between the international community and Damascus.
The hardening of attitude comes as Syria said it will "redeploy" all of the 15,000 troops it has stationed in Lebanon to the country's eastern border with Syria in a last ditch attempt to defuse increasing international pressure against it.
Foreign Minster Deputy Walid Moallem said Syria was willing to cooperate with the UN but insisted again that any withdrawal would be carried out in line with the 1989 Taif Accord and not through UN Resolution 1559 which calls for all foreign troops to leave Lebanon.
Moallem said: "The important withdrawals that have been implemented so far, and those that will follow will be carried out in agreement with Lebanon based on the 1989 Taif Accord and the mechanism it contains."
But in an interview to be shown later Friday with Dubai-based Al-Arabiyya television, the UN chief warned that "the Security Council would take measures against Syria if it does not implement the resolution."
Al-Arabiyya added that Annan called for "a full withdrawal of the troops deployed in Lebanon, not a redeployment to the east of the country."
But Annan's comments came as Lebanese Defense Minister Abdel-Rahim Mrad said there would be no complete or immediate withdrawal.
Mrad said: "A decision has been made for Syrian troops to pull back from Lebanon's coast and mountains toward the Syrian border in Bekaa but we cannot give any timeline."
He added: "We cannot create a security vacuum."
Mrad said Lebanese and Syrian military officers have begun meetings to define "the dates and the way" the withdrawal will take place, adding that the pullback would take place from the coast and the mountains to the eastern Bekaa Valley on the Syrian border.
Against the backdrop of hightened international pressure it is understood that Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Algeria have put forward an Arab initiative which, according to a Riyadh-based Arab diplomat, will "provide an Arab umbrella" for a Syrian redeployment that would lead to a withdrawal" in a bid to prevent the further "internationalization" of the crisis.
Saudi Arabia was the main sponsor of the 1989 Taif Accord which ended the 15-year conflict a year later and envisaged a Syrian redeployment to eastern Lebanon followed by a Lebanese-Syrian agreement on the duration of any lasting Syrian presence in the country.
This latest diplomatic move comes hard on the heels of an unannounced visit to Paris by Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal.
In addition to pressure from the European Union and America, Arab leaders, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah II have also been calling for a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon.
But speaking yesterday, Lebanese Prime Minister Omar Karami insisted a "quick" Syrian withdrawal would destabilize Lebanon, saying: "In our opinion, it would shake the stability of the country."
"Driving Syria out of Lebanon through challenges, provocation and curses cannot leave the country relaxed and stable. A Syrian withdrawal can only take place through consensus," he added.
But Lebanon's opposition parties hit back at Karami's comments. The opposition Qornet Shehwan Gathering said it had "great confidence in the country's Constitution and its security forces" to keep order and there would be no "return to the civil war" if Syrian forces left.
While the world is focused on the issue of Syrian troop withdrawal, it remains unclear whether any Syrian troop redeployment would also mean a withdrawal of the intelligence officers whom the Lebanon's political opposition blames for much of the meddling in Beirut's political life. By Thursday evening there were no signs of any movement of either Syrian troops.
Touring around the main troop stations in the mountains surrounding Beirut near Aley and Bhamdoun toward
the evening, The Daily Star saw no sign of troop movements. Local residents, though, reported that they spoke to some military personnel who said the redeployment would be starting overnight on Thursday.
Syrian troops are currently based on high mountains overlooking the coast to the west and the Bekaa to the east in central Lebanon, with positions along the coast in northern Lebanon. The bulk of the Syrian garrison has withdrawn from the coast and the lower ground in redeployments since 2000, the last of which was in December in which Syrian security agents vacated posts at Beirut International Airport and in the north.
The Bekaa is of strategic military importance for Syria, which is at war with Israel. The Lebanese border is only a 20-minute drive from Damascus, the Syrian capital.
In 1982, Israeli troops invading Lebanon drove the Syrian Army out of large swathes of the region.
U.S. President George W. Bush and French President Jacques Chirac have this week repeatedly demanded a full Syrian army withdrawal from Lebanon. Bush ratcheted up the pressure Wednesday, demanding the withdrawal of Syrian security services as well.
Mass demonstrations in Beirut against Syria and calling for the resignation of the pro-Syrian Lebanese government accompanied the international pressure.
Adnan El Ghoul
The Daily Star