Middle East Intelligence Bulletin
Jointly published by the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon and the Middle East Forum
  Vol. 5   No. 7 Table of Contents
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July 2003 


Syria's Fourth Redeployment from Lebanon
by Ziad K. Abdelnour and Gary C. Gambill

redeployment map

In the face of mounting criticism by the Bush administration and a bipartisan push for sanctions in the American congress, Syria reduced its military presence in central and northern Lebanon earlier this month, but the redeployment - its fourth in three years - is hardly an indication that Damascus intends to honor recent American calls for a total Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon. On the contrary, it bespeaks an intention to defy these calls.

The Politics behind the Pullout

Syrian troops entered war-torn Lebanon in 1976, ostensibly to prevent Palestinian and Lebanese leftist groups from defeating Christian militia forces, and have never left. In October 1990, Syria invaded east Beirut and toppled the last remnants of Lebanon's First Republic, completing its conquest of the country. The invaders were welcomed by most Lebanese political elites, who believed that the West would force Syria to honor its obligation under the 1989 Taif Accord to relocate its troops from Beirut and other major cities to the Beqaa Valley by 1992 and establish a timetable for their complete withdrawal from the country. During the next ten years, rather than redeploy its forces, Syria strengthened its military presence in Lebanon, estimated at 35,000-40,000 soldiers in 2000. In return for Syria's participation in the 1991 Gulf War and willingness to negotiate (if not actually make peace) with Israel, the United States gave tacit backing to its occupation of Lebanon.

By the time of Syrian President Bashar Assad's ascension in July 2000, overt Lebanese opposition to the occupation had grown to unprecedented heights, fueled by the end of his father's 30-year reign, Israel's withdrawal from south Lebanon, deteriorating economic conditions, and the breakdown of peace talks. Moreover, opposition to Syrian hegemony had begun spreading across the ideological and sectarian spectrum in Lebanon. In hopes of stemming the growth of grassroots opposition to the occupation, the young Syrian dictator sought to appease mainstream Christian political and religious elites by pledging to honor Syria's obligations under the Taif Accord. Three major redeployments of Syrian forces, separated by ten-month intervals, took place in June 2001, April 2002, and February 2003, bringing Syrian troop strength in Lebanon down to 16,000. Most Christian opposition figures expected a fourth redeployment to take place toward the end of the year (i.e. following another ten-month interval) and adopted an unusually quiescent tone on the subject of Syria.

Following the outbreak of war in Iraq and Syria's ill-fated decision to intervene by sending suicide squads to combat coalition forces, US-Syrian relations deteriorated. American officials began using the term "occupation" to describe the Syrian military presence in Lebanon for the first time in over a decade and publicly expressing the desirability of a Syrian withdrawal. In addition, the Bush administration conspicuously declined to obstruct efforts by congressional critics of Syria to garner majority support in both the Senate and House of Representatives for the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act, which would impose sanctions on Syria if it continues to occupy Lebanon.

Until Syrian troops began their most recent redeployment, however, there were few signs that Damascus was preparing to further scale back its military presence. In June, the Lebanese daily Al-Nahar reported that two Syrian military jeeps had been spotted in Marjayoun, the former "capital" of the border enclave occupied by Israel until May 2000. This marked the first time in many years that Syrian forces have deployed south of the Awali river - a "red line" beyond which Israel has long maintained that it will not tolerate a Syrian presence.[1]

The Fourth Redeployment

The latest redeployment began suddenly and unannounced in the late night hours of July 14 and continued for four days. Although no official figures for the net reduction of Syria's troop presence were made available by either government, Lebanese military sources said that roughly 1,000 soldiers, two dozen tanks, and several dozen armored personnel carriers were withdrawn from the country. Most of the positions vacated by the Syrians were of little or no strategic value. A striking indication of their ancillary nature was the fact that, in nearly all cases, no Lebanese army troops moved in to replace departing Syrian forces.

South of Beirut

Numerous positions in the southern suburbs of Beirut were evacuated or turned over to the Lebanese military, particularly in Shweifat, just south of Beirut International Airport, and Khalde and Aaramoun, around 10 km (6 miles) south of the capital. A small contingent of Syrian soldiers has remained at the Beirut headquarters of Syrian military intelligence. Some Syrian troops reportedly continue to man a strategic position in Khalde at the junction of roads leading into Beirut and to the Shouf region, as well as some checkpoints near the Palestinian refugee camps of Shatilla and Bourj al-Barajnah. In Aaramoun, at least one major position overlooking Beirut International Airport remains under the control of the Syrians.

North Lebanon

In north Lebanon, Syrian troops vacated or scaled down seven positions in the districts of Koura and Batroun. Syrian positions in Arida and Deir Ammar were completely dismantled. In Qolaiaat, the Syrians greatly reduced their troop strength at a major airstrip. Syrian troops still maintain a strong presence in the northern port of Tripoli and in the Akkar region.

Beqaa Valley

In the northern Beqaa Valley, three positions in the vicinity of Baalbak (Maqni al-Kunaysah, Douris, and Al-Tawfiqiyyah) were vacated by around 300 members of Syria's 18th Brigade. This was said to be the first time that Syria has reduced its military presence in the northern Beqaa in over two decades. According to a Lebanese army source, the redeployment from Baalbak was a last minute decision, not part of the original plan.

Reaction

Senior Lebanese officials have invariably insisted that the redeployment was a joint decision by Lebanese and Syrian officials and that its timing was purely a function of the Lebanese military's improved capacity to maintain security in the country. "The reduction in Syrian forces in Lebanon came as a result of the growing ability of the Lebanese army and police to safeguard Lebanon's security and stability," Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri told a visiting Kuwaiti media delegation on July 16.[2] However, few independent observers believe that the redeployment had anything to do with such technical considerations.

Most media outlets in Lebanon attributed the redeployment to the warming of relations between Syria and the mainstream Christian opposition, organized as the Qornet Shehwan Gathering under the auspices of Cardinal Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, the patriarch of Lebanon's Maronite Christian community. While most Qornet Shehwan members effusively praised the redeployment,[3] there is little evidence that it was an outgrowth of negotiations between Damascus and the opposition. The mainstream opposition has been unusually quiescent in recent months - and the Syrians did not need to make any symbolic concessions to ensure that it stayed this way. Insofar as there has been grumbling in Qornet Shehwan, it is not because the redeployment in stages of Syrian forces has not progressed rapidly enough, but because it has not been carried out transparently - three of the four redeployments were completely unannounced. The Taif Accord and the 1991 Treaty of Brotherhood, Cooperation, and Coordination between the two countries stipulate that a joint Lebanese-Syrian military committee must specifically define the areas of the country in which Syrian troops are needed and specify both the size and duration of this military presence. No such committee has been formed (or if it has, its proceedings have not been made public). "We didn't know anything about the numbers of the withdrawing troops, the numbers of the remaining troops, or anything about the future plans for withdrawal," said Qornet Shehwan member Samir Franjieh after the latest redeployment.[4] Exiled former Prime Minister Michel Aoun, who heads the secular nationalist Free National Current (FNC), has long criticized those who seek a "respectable exit" for Syrian troops under the pretext of the Taif Accord.[5]

Many in Lebanon also saw the troop reduction as a response to American pressure. The timing of the redeployment, which began less than a day after a scheduled July 15 congressional subcommittee hearing on the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act was postponed until September, raised suspicions that there had been a quid pro quo - that the Bush administration demanded (and got) a redeployment in return for forestalling congressional action. Pro-Syrian Lebanese politicians were at great pains to deny this. "Syria is redeploying its troops as was agreed in the Taif Accord, and which it began two years ago, before these pressures," insisted MP Nasser Qandil, a close friend of Syria's deputy chief of military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Assef Shawkat.[6] The pro-Syrian daily Al-Safir quoted a Lebanese military source as saying that plans for the fourth redeployment "were agreed upon in January."[7]

Although the possibility of a quid pro quo cannot be entirely discounted, the American reaction to the redeployment suggests otherwise. While a French Foreign Ministry spokesman was quick to call it a "step in the right direction,"[8] the initial reaction of US officials was hardly congratulatory. Responding to a reporter's question about the troop movements on July 15, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher noted only that the United States has "always supported the goal of Lebanon free of foreign forces" and "always looked to all of the parties to exercise their responsibilities in that regard."[9] Questioned again during a briefing three days later, Boucher said that he still could not make any "real assessment" of the redeployment and again reiterated American support for a Lebanon "free of all foreign forces."[10] In a July 19 interview with Paris-based Radio Monte Carlo, US Secretary of State Colin Powell said that he was "pleased that in recent weeks Syria has withdrawn more of its troops" and expressed hope that "the day will be reached when, with the agreement of all the parties, the Syrian Army will be back home," but then reiterated that "Syria is occupying another country" (hardly a pat on the back for the Syrians).[11]

In short, the American reaction suggests that the redeployment was not coordinated with US officials and was not intended to meet specific American demands. Indeed, according to reliable sources, the prevailing perception in Damascus is that there are no American demands regarding the Syrian presence in Lebanon - that US calls for a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon are primarily intended to bring about Syrian concessions on other issues. There is little evidence that this perception is incorrect.[12] When Powell calls for Syrian troops to depart, or uses the term "occupation" to describe the Syrian presence in Lebanon, he is not issuing a demand, but a punishment - little by little, the Bush administration is withdrawing its tacit support for the occupation in retaliation for Syria's refusal to dismantle the infrastructure of terrorist groups that operate openly in Syria and Syrian-occupied Lebanon.

The Syrians are clearly worried that continued American calls for a withdrawal will inspire a new wave of opposition within Lebanon to the occupation - and for good reason. In the past, even weak signs that the United States might be reappraising its acceptance of Syrian hegemony in Lebanon have emboldened domestic opposition to the Syrian presence.

At first, Syrian and Lebanese officials assumed that American talk of an "occupation" would be fleeting. Powell's initial departure from the State Department's strict vernacular guidelines regarding the Syrian presence during a March 13 congressional subcommittee hearing was seen by Lebanese Information Minister Ghazi Aridi as stemming from "imbalance and tension" within the Bush administration.[13] There now seems to be an awareness that the United States fully intends to squeeze Syria where it hurts the most - Lebanon. The redeployment, along with recent measures to "deregulate" the Lebanese political order, was intended to protect Syria from this pressure by appeasing mainstream opponents of the Lebanese regime.

How far Syria is willing to go in reducing its military presence is a hotly debated topic in Lebanon. For months, the local media has been flush with leaks from official Lebanese and Syrian sources claiming that Damascus intends to meet its obligations under the Taif Accord, or even withdraw completely from Lebanon. In early July, a Kuwaiti paper quoted "Arab sources" as saying that Syria had decided to complete the relocation of its forces to the Beqaa by the end of 2003.[14] On July 23, Al-Nahar reported that Syria was planning further redeployments in the next few months that would relocate all of its forces to a narrow belt of territory in the eastern Beqaa. A number of Lebanese newspapers have even cited "informed" (but apparently unofficial) political sources as saying that Syria intends to withdraw completely from Lebanon by the fall of 2004.

Whatever the extent of future troops reductions by Syria, they are unlikely to directly impact its control of Lebanon, which depends more on Syria's plainclothes secret police and political patronage networks than on the size of its occupation army. "Syria's sponsorship is at the political and security levels and not at the military level," said Qandil in a moment of candor, adding that "intelligence cooperation" with Syria would ensure security. When needed, he said, Syrian troops "could arrive in minutes."[15]

Notes

  [1] Al-Nahar (Beirut), 16 June 2003.
  [2] Al-Nahar (Beirut), 17 July 2003.
  [3] MP Boutros Harb hailed it as "a first step to start reorganizing relations between Lebanon and Syria." Deutsche Presse-Agentur, 16 July 2003.
  [4] The Daily Star (Beirut), 22 July 2003.
  [5] The Daily Star (Beirut), 21 July 2003.
  [6] Agence France Presse, 15 July 2003.
  [7] Al-Safir, 15 July 2003.
  [8] French Foreign Ministry, Daily Press Briefing, 17 July 2003.
  [9] US Department of State Daily Press Briefing, 15 July 2003.
  [10] US Department of State Daily Press Briefing, 18 July 2003.
  [11] Agence France Presse, 19 July 2003.
  [12] Reports in the Israeli media that the Bush administration has demanded a total Syrian withdrawal have not been substantiated. See Ma'ariv, 14 July 2003.
  [13] Al-Sharq al-Awsat (London), 16 March 2003.
  [14] Al-Ra'y al-Amm (Kuwait), 8 July 2003.
  [15] The Daily Star, 17 July 2003.


2003 Middle East Intelligence Bulletin. All rights reserved.

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