Middle East Intelligence Bulletin
Jointly published by the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon and the Middle East Forum
  Vol. 3   No. 6 Table of Contents
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June 2001 


Under Duress, Syria Pulls Troops out of Beirut
by Gary C. Gambill

Syrian truck
Syrian President Bashar Assad's decision to undertake a limited redeployment of Syrian troops from Beirut and surrounding areas earlier this month took many by surprise. For months, Syrian officials had stated unequivocally that this long-awaited redeployment, required under the terms of the 1989 Taif Accord, would not be undertaken until Lebanese nationalists had abandoned their vocal campaign to mobilize opposition to the Syrian occupation. Fearing that a redeployment would hand the opposition a public relations victory, Damascus repeatedly postponed a troop withdrawal that had been scheduled to take place as early as last summer.

The decision to move forward with the redeployment under conditions of extreme political duress was a calculated political gamble designed to strengthen the political position of President Emile Lahoud, appease mainstream political elites who have aligned themselves with the nationalist movement in recent months, and improve Syria's image abroad.

The Scope of the Redeployment

On the night of June 13, Syria began a week-long redeployment of military forces from areas of Beirut and its suburbs. Altogether, around 7,000 soldiers were withdrawn from 13 positions in Beirut and around a dozen outposts in the surrounding areas of Metn, Baabda and Mount Lebanon. The most politically significant areas evacuated by the Syrians were the site of the Presidential Palace in Baabda and the Defense Ministry compound in Yarze.

Although some Western news reports proclaimed that Syrian forces had withdrawn completely from the Greater Beirut area, local press reports indicate that several positions along the outskirts of Beirut remain under Syrian control. According to Al-Nahar, Syrian regular army troops withdrew from the Dhour El Shweir outpost in Metn, but were replaced by a Syrian commando unit. The Syrians also continue to maintain a base at the Monte Verdi mountaintop along a strategic crossroad in central Lebanon, an observation post in Beit Meri, as well as several positions around Beirut International Airport and adjacent southern suburbs.1

The heavy presence of plainclothes Syrian intelligence agents in the Lebanese capital itself does not appear to have diminished. The headquarters of Syrian intelligence in Beirut, located in the Ramlet al-Baida neighborhood, has not been evacuated, nor has a second intelligence base near the Sabra and Shatila and Bourj al-Barajneh Palestinian refugee camps. Moreover, local press reports indicated that some Syrian military positions in Beirut have simply been transferred to the control of plainclothes intelligence agents. For example, two outposts in Ras Beirut, a waterfront area where the American University of Beirut is located, were still held by Syrian intelligence as MEIB went to press.

It was also clear that the majority of the troops moved out of the Beirut area were redeployed within Lebanon, rather than being pulled out of the country altogether. According to Lebanese sources, only one of the five brigades of Syrian troops in the Beirut area returned to Syria. The remainder have reportedly established a perimeter in the Beqaa Valley to the east, stretching from Hammana through Mdeirej to Ain Dara - within striking distance of Beirut should Syrian intelligence forces in the capital need their assistance. There are no signs that the bulk of Syrian forces remaining in the country will leave anytime soon. In fact, Damascus has recently beefed up its air defenses in Lebanon. According to sources in Beirut, Syria has established sophisticated new radar stations in the northern Lebanese region of Akkar, an outpost east of Baalbek in the Beqaa Valley, Dayr al-Ashayir along the Lebanese-Syrian border, and a fourth, mobile unit in the mountains of central Lebanon.

The Objectives of the Redeployment

The decision to move forward with the withdrawal under the present circumstances stemmed from several considerations.

Rehabilitating Lahoud

First, as overt opposition to the Syrian occupation escalated in recent months, the heavy Syrian presence around major government institutions in the Lebanese capital became a major political liability for President Emile Lahoud and other close allies of Damascus and the contentious public debate over the Syrian presence contributed to visible fractures in the Lebanese regime.

Damascus clearly hopes that the redeployment will strengthen Lahoud politically, particularly within his own Maronite Christian community. Whereas previous redeployments undertaken in recent years (reducing Syrian troop strength in Lebanon from 35,000 to 27,000) were undertaken with as little publicity as possible, both Syrian and Lebanese officials openly acknowledged the move and repeatedly emphasized that Lahoud had personally requested and helped coordinate the redeployment during a meeting with Assad on June 10 in Qordaha, Syria. Moreover, departing Syrian soldiers broke decisively with well-established regulations and actually encouraged photographers to take pictures.

Appeasing the Political Establishment

The redeployment also represented an attempt to appease the growing coalition of political elites, headed by Maronite Christian Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir and Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt, that have aligned themselves with the Lebanese nationalist movement over the last nine months.

Mainstream political elites had focused their attention mainly on Syrian control over the Lebanese government and the heavy presence of Syrian troops in the immediate vicinity of state institutions, not the presence of Syrian troops in the country as a whole. A statement released by the Council of Maronite Bishops last September, for example, explicitly condemned the presence of Syrian forces around the Presidential Palace and the Defense Ministry as a symbolic affront to Lebanese sovereignty.

Assad reportedly wished to establish a better climate for his first official visit to Lebanon, expected to occur sometime in the next few months. He had originally planned to visit last September, but the tense political climate resulted in several postponements.

Strengthening Syria's Image Abroad

The redeployment was also designed to improve Western perceptions of the Syrian and Lebanese regimes. While American officials have continued to deal cordially with Syrian and Lebanese officials despite the continuing political crisis in Lebanon, the reception given to President Lahoud during his recent trip to France was noticeably cool. Lahoud was received at the airport not by French President Jacques Chirac, but by Defense Minister Alain Richard. In fact, Lahoud was originally scheduled to be received by Transport Minister Jean-Claude Gayssot and managed to upgrade to Richard only after lodging a protest. Nevertheless, he was denied a one-on-one meeting with Chirac, who has reportedly taken to dealing exclusively with Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri because of Lahoud's refusal to deploy the Army in south Lebanon against Syrian wishes. Assad, who is scheduled to embark on a three day visit to France on June 25, clearly wished to avoid a similar snub.

A more important consideration, according to sources in Beirut, was the fact that Lebanon is scheduled to host a Francophone summit in October that will be attended by Assad and over 50 other foreign heads of state. Exiled former Prime Minister Michel Aoun's Free National Current (FNC) was widely expected to stage massive popular demonstrations around Syrian positions in Beirut during the summit. The redeployment was calculated to minimize the repercussions.

Reaction to the Redeployment

Most political elites who have criticized the Syrian occupation in recent months hailed the redeployment as a positive development and emphasized their desire for close relations with Syria. Jumblatt said the partial withdrawal was "a first step" that will "stabilize Lebanese-Syrian relations," while noting that he was not calling for a total withdrawal "because the strategic needs of Syria toward Israel should be understood." Metn MP Nassib Lahoud called it "a positive step toward implementation of the Taif Accord" that will "pave the way for real strategic cooperation" between Lebanon and Syria. Batroun MP Butros Harb called the move an "ideal first step on the road to restoring trust between the two peoples," while emphasizing the need for "special relations" with Damascus. Kesrouan MP Farid Khazen called the move "a step in the right direction" that will help "correct what is wrong in the Lebanese-Syrian relations." Kesrouan MP Neamatallah Abi Nasr remarked that "even if the redeployment came late, it was a positive step." Metn MP Pierre Gemayel, the son of former President Amine Gemayel, said the redeployment was a "courageous" move by the Syrians that resulted from an "ongoing dialogue . . . [which] consolidates cooperation between the two sides."2

Michel Aoun
However, Aoun warned that "the very limited withdrawal is aimed at quelling the wrath of a majority of Lebanese who demand a Syrian pull-out."3 Cardinal Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, the patriarch of Lebanon's Maronite Church, initially applauded the redeployment and called it "satisfactory." However, after Aoun and other members of the FNC criticized the limited scale of the pullout, Sfeir changed his tone and called the move a mere "step in the 1,000-mile trek" toward a balanced Syrian-Lebanese relationship that "should neither be exaggerated nor minimized."4

Overseas reaction to the redeployment appeared to be deliberately nonchalant. A French spokesman said simply that France was "following attentively the developments in progress in Lebanon." US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters that the American government was "closely following up the Syrian withdrawal from Beirut, which has not been completed yet." While acknowledging that the Taif Accord called for a Syrian withdrawal from the greater Beirut area by 1992, Boucher refused to say whether the Syrian redeployment fulfilled these conditions, stating that "the decision and execution of these matters rest with the two governments concerned."

Conclusion

Whether the Syrian redeployment will diminish what little international pressure exists on Damascus to undertake a full withdrawal from Lebanon remains to be seen. The current American policy, as stated by US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Edward Walker during a March 29 congressional hearing, is that "peace will be the best answer to achieve a withdrawal of all Syrian forces from Lebanon."5 The Syrians clearly hope that this limited carte blanche will now evolve into a complete hands off policy. In an apparent effort to test the waters, Assad told a French television station on June 21 that a complete Syrian withdrawal from the country would be "linked to Lebanon's internal conditions."6 That same day, the Lebanese daily Al-Safir asked a State Department official to clarify the American position. "The United States is aware that there is a trend in Syria that contends that the Syrian army should remain in northern Lebanon and the Beqaa even after a peace treaty is signed," said the official. "That's why the United States is making it clear that it expects the Syrian army to leave the whole of Lebanon after the conclusion of peace treaties."7

While the scale of opposition to the Syrian presence within the Lebanese political establishment may decrease for a time, this limited pullout of Syrian troops will not decisively undermine grassroots support for Aoun's Free National Current. Lebanese nationalists, while publicly belittling the limited scale of the pullout, see this new development as a turning point in the evolution of Syrian hegemony in Lebanon and a vindication of their unwillingness to compromise Lebanese sovereignty. As Israel learned during the mid-1980's, a partial redeployment under duress will only invigorate demands for a complete pullout from Lebanon.

Notes

  1 Al-Nahar (Beirut), 19 June 2001.
  2 The Daily Star (Beirut), 15 June 2001.
  3 Al-Nahar (Beirut), 16 June 2001.
  4 Al-Nahar (Beirut), 16 June 2001.
  5 Hearing of the Middle East and South Asia Subcommittee of the House International Relations Committee, 29 March 2001.
  6 France 2 Television, 21 June 2001.
  7 Al-Safir, 22 June 2001.


2001 Middle East Intelligence Bulletin. All rights reserved.

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