BEIRUT (AFP) – The Syrian army announced another limited pullback of troops in Lebanon, amid mounting international pressure on Damascus to pull out all of its forces and end interference in its smaller neighbour.
A senior Lebanese army officer told AFP that Syrian army intelligence troops will be pulled out of their positions at Beirut airport, the southern suburbs of the capital, and in the northern coastal town of Batrun.
A Lebanese army command statement confirmed that “under the directives of Lebanese president Emile Lahoud and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad… a redeployment of Syrian (army) intelligence posts has been decided.”
The Syrian army intelligence office at the Beirut International Airport would be closed as well as that of Beirut’s southern suburbs and Batrun, said the statement. It was not clear whether the troops were being redeployed to the east of the country or would withdraw completely to Syria.
The measure came “in line with the joint coordination pertaining to the redeployment” of the thousands of Syrian army troops and intelligence forces in Lebanon, it said.
But on Saturday afternoon, Syrian army intelligence forces were still manning their post in Beirut’s southern suburbs, a stronghold of the Lebanese Shiite Muslim militant group Hezbollah, according to an AFP correspondent.
The decision to shut the Syrian intelligence posts comes amid growing international pressure for Damascus to end its political and military domination of its tiny neighbour.
In September, Damascus evacuated a few army positions south of Beirut, the sixth Syrian troop pullback operation in three years, that has brought down the number of Syrian troops in Lebanon from 35,000 to about 14,000.
Syria redeployed its forces in June 2001, again in April 2002 and then twice in 2003, withdrawing the bulk of its troops from Beirut and the surrounding areas into the eastern Bekaa valley.
The latest redeployment, 28 years after Syria first sent in troops a year after the outbreak of the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war, comes after the United Nations (news – web sites), the United States and the European Union (news – web sites) ratcheted up the pressure on Damascus over its role in Lebanon.
UN Security Council Resolution 1559, passed on September 2, called for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Lebanon and an end to interference in its politics, in a clear message to Syria.
It also called for the disarmament of militias, in reference to the Lebanese Shiite Muslim militant Hezbollah and Palestinian camps across the country.
And just a day after the resolution was adopted, Lebanon’s parliament passed a Syrian-inspired constitutional amendment that extended the term of Damascus protege Lebanese President Emile Lahoud for another three years.
Lebanon and Syria both objected to Resolution 1559, considering it an interference in their internal affairs.
Last month, Lebanese Information Minister Elie Ferzli said implementing Resolution 1559 too quickly would result in “internal disorder,” as Syria’s “security cover … is a factor in Lebanon’s internal stability.”
Ferzli also said the disarmament of Hezbollah, which still controls large parts of southern Lebanon after Israeli forces ended their 22-year occupation there in 2000, would be impossible without “overall regional peace.”
Syria’s clout in Lebanon has also raised concerns internally, particularly among Christian leaders who considered that Syrian troops should have pulled back years ago.
The 1989 Taef national reconciliation agreement, which led to the end of the Lebanese civil war, called for a Syrian army pullback to the eastern Bekaa Valley, but did not set a date for the full pullout.