CAIRO, Egypt – Syria has told Arab countries it needs to keep 3,000 troops and early-warning stations inside Lebanon to maintain its security despite international pressure for a full withdrawal, an Arab diplomat said Thursday.
But, in meetings ahead of the Arab League meeting that opened here, Arab countries have maintained the Syrian demand is not viable, the diplomat told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
Syrian President Bashar Assad flew to Riyadh to meet with the leader of Saudi Arabia. It was unclear if he was bringing a new proposal or would reiterate the Syrian position delivered to Arab leaders earlier this week.
At a meeting in Cairo, meanwhile, Arab leaders 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, which has 15,000 troops in Lebanon, 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, in interviews with international media, 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 troops were originally deployed during Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war — ostensibly as peacekeepers — and Syria has held sway over Lebanese politics ever since.
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.
Mauritanian Foreign Minister Mohamed Vall Ould Bellal called on Syria to implement the Taif agreement “according to a sensible timetable.”
Assad was to visit Riyadh later Thursday, accompanied by Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa, who had been in Riyadh for consultations on the Lebanon situation Monday — the day the Lebanese government resigned.
Notably absent from the Arab League meeting were 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 (news – web sites).
On leaving the Arab League building, he was asked to comment on Egyptian-Saudi efforts to calm the political storm surrounding Syria’s role in Lebanon.
“There is no preconception (for a way out) of this crisis,” he said, hurrying away. After meeting Mubarak, he left without speaking to reporters.
There, Egyptian presidential spokesman Suleiman Awad told reporters that a means must be found for “marrying the Taif agreement with the Security Council resolution” passed last year calling for all foreign forces to leave Lebanon.
“We are working on it,” he said. “The aim is easing the pressure off Syria.”
A wave of anti-Syrian protests began at the funeral of former premier Rafik Hariri, whose Feb. 14 assassination 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. Far fewer people have kept up the peaceful “independence uprising” in the past few days, shifting attention to political maneuvering.
Arab ministers played down any lasting effect the turmoil might have.
Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Kerbi expressed sorrow over Hariri’s death and hope that “our brothers in Lebanon will overcome this predicament and unify their ranks in a way that will guarantee the safety, security, unity and stability of Lebanon.”
“Undoubtedly, the wisdom in which Syria is dealing with these developments will enable Lebanon and Syria to maintain their special historic relationship,” said al-Kerbi, acting as chairman for the meeting.