An joint statement issued after today's meeting in Damascus between the two presidents says about 14,000 Syrian troops in northern and central Lebanon will move into the eastern Bakaa Valley -- near the Syrian border -- by the end of March.
But the announcement says a decision on any final troop withdrawal from Syria will be made only after further negotiations. The joint statement out of Damascus also says it will be up to military officials from the two countries to decide within a month about the size and duration of a Syrian force that would remain in the Bekaa Valley.
The statement says Syria and Lebanon are committed to the Taif Accord and its mechanisms, which form the basis of the redeployment plan that was announced by President al-Assad on 5 March. The statement also says the leaders of both countries respect UN Security Council Resolution 1559 -- which calls for a complete withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon.
Shortly after the announcement from Damascus was made, the leaders of Germany and France issued their own joint statement from talks in Germany. In it, French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder are demanding that Syria make "a full withdrawal of its troops and services from Lebanon as quickly as possible."
Washington also is calling for an immediate and complete withdrawal of Syrian forces rather than the phased redeployment toward the border announced by President al-Assad on 5 March.
"President Assad's comments [on Saturday] were more kind of these generalities and half measures, which is in complete contradiction to UN Security Council Resolution 1559," said Dan Bartlett, an adviser to U.S. President George W. Bush. "The international community is united with the Lebanese people in asking and telling the Syrian government to withdraw its troops [completely from Lebanon] and, more importantly, or just as importantly, withdrawing its security secret services as well from Lebanon. This is critically important for the future of the Lebanese people. We're going to continue to keep the pressure by speaking with a clear, united voice with the international community."
Bartlett said international pressure against Syria will continue to grow until the precise terms of UN Resolution 1559 are met by Damascus. "This is something that President Bush has worked very closely with President Chirac of France on, the European Union, the Arab League," he said. "There are other important voices that stepped forward this week as well: Russia, Saudi Arabia. So the pressure is on Syria to live up to the international community's demands and fulfill the desires of the Lebanese people."
Although today's announcement sidesteps UN Resolution 1559 for now, officials in Damascus say compliance with the Taif Accord will amount to about the same thing. That accord had called for Syrian troops to be moved into the Bekaa Valley by 1990.
The outgoing defense minister in Lebanon's pro-Syrian government suggested on Sunday that the UN resolution is not the guiding principle of Assad's redeployment plan. Rather, Abdul Rahim Mrad said, the 15-year-old Taif Accord is the document that should determine how long Syrian troops can stay in the Bekaa Valley.
"The redeployment plan from the Bekaa Valley to the Syrian border won't happen now," Mrad said. "[The second phase of the redeployment] will be determined some day in the future -- to determine when the pullout from Bekaa Valley to the Syrian border area will take place. The timeline for this redeployment will depend on national and international developments. Because this is what was stated literally in the Taif Accord."
Opposition leaders in Beirut say they fear Assad's redeployment plan will allow Syria to keep its troops in the Bekaa Valley indefinitely -- stalling a final withdrawal from Lebanon by delaying diplomatic negotiations.
Among them is former Lebanese President Amin Jamayel, who says he had wanted Syria to commit to some kind of timetable for a complete withdrawal. "We heard from President Assad saying 'the withdrawal to the border area -- the Syrian-Lebanese border area.' And not 'into Syrian territory.' So we are afraid that the Syrian army will remain within the Lebanese borders, inside Lebanon, on the Lebanese territory," he said.
There were signs today that Syrian forces finally are preparing for the long-delayed move to the Bekkaa Valley. Correspondents report that Syrian soldiers at several positions in the Lebanese mountains east of Beirut already are packing up communications equipment or loading personal belongings and light weapons onto military trucks.