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Middle East: Pressure Grows For Syrian Withdrawal From Lebanon

Syria is coming under growing international pressure over its military presence in Lebanon. Since Lebanon's pro-Syrian government resigned on 28 Febraury, both Paris and Washington have reiterated their calls for Damascus to withdraw its 14,000 troops. In a recent interview with the U.S. news weekly “Time,” the Syrian president has promised he can do so "within months, not more." But experts see that remark as a negotiating tactic. They say a withdrawal is unlikely without further pressure -- and possibly a different negotiating approach.

Prague, 2 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Speaking yesterday at a London conference on Palestinian reforms, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier both reiterated their demands for Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon.

French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier stressed that by keeping its forces in Lebanon, Syria is violating international law.

"There can be no pretext nor any excuse not to apply [UN Resolution 1559.] It demands that Lebanon be sovereign, that foreign troops withdraw as well as special foreign [intelligence] services," Barner said. "And Syria, which is involved, of course, must understand that we are serious. The whole of the international community is serious in its demand that it carry out this resolution progressively and realistically."

Rice suggested that Syria's military presence in Lebanon is part of a larger pattern of behavior that frustrates the democratic hopes of people across the Middle East.

"When the Syrians support insurgents or allow their territory to be used for insurgents, they are frustrating the aspirations of the Iraqi people. When the Syrians allow their troops and their security forces to operate in Lebanon, they are frustrating the aspirations of those Lebanese people who are in the streets in Lebanon. When the Syrians support -- from their territory and with their activities -- terrorist groups who carry out bombings in the Holy Land, they are frustrating the aspirations of the Palestinian people," Rice said.

U.S. Army General John Abizaid, who oversees operations in Iraq, told the U.S. Senate yesterday that the Syrian government has not done enough to stop foreign fighters from crossing its border with Iraq. But Abizaid said it is unclear if the Syrian government itself is directly involved in aiding the insurgents.

At times, Washington and Baghdad have credited Syria with increasing cooperation on patrolling the border. Iraq's defense minister did so again yesterday as he also confirmed that Damascus had helped with the recent arrest of Saddam Hussein's half-brother Sabawi Ibrahim al-Hasan al-Tikriti.

Accusations of Syrian support for recent terrorist attacks against Israelis have similarly focused on groups within Syria rather than the Syrian government itself.

Still, some experts say they are skeptical about how much Damascus wants to cooperate with demand it take steps to reduce tensions in the region if doing so weakens Syria’s own position -- for example, in Lebanon.

Nadim Shehadi is the director of the Center for Lebanese Studies at Oxford University in England. He said a recent statement by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to a U.S. news magazine that he will withdraw troops from Syria “within months, not more” falls into that category.

"An interview with ‘Time’ magazine about Assad saying that he can withdraw within months is not an actual withdrawal. Syria has been doing this with the peace process for years also. They were willing to sign a deal with Israel 'tomorrow.' And on the second day, they were still willing to sign 'tomorrow.' And it went on for years and years. It's just a negotiating tactic," Shehadi said.

Shehadi said a Syrian withdrawal is unlikely unless more diplomatic pressure is brought upon Damascus. "I don't think Syria can withdraw from Lebanon without a kind of framework for its withdrawal at the moment," he said. "And if Mr Assad wants to withdraw his troops under the American pressure, that is -- well, I don't think he is going to withdraw without somebody making him withdraw, basically."

Shehadi said the international community shouldn't just issue threats -- like possible economic sanctions – but also offer incentives. He put his argument in terms of the diplomatic idiom of a "carrot and stick" -- with the "carrot" representing a reward and the "stick" being a threat of punishment.

"At the moment, all Syria is getting is a lot of stick and no carrot. This is not the way to deal with a country in which there are several factions -- some of which are hard-line and some of which are trying to open up and reform. Dealing with a country like that only with sticks can only increase the power of the hardliners within the internal balance. And the result of that is probably what we've seen in Beirut a couple of weeks ago with the assassination of Prime Minister [Rafiq] al-Hariri," Shehadi said.

Nevertheless, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said today that the international community is watching Syria very closely and expects it to act on what he called "certain obligations."