CAIRO - Syria has pledged to pull all its soldiers and intelligence agents out of neighboring Lebanon by the end of the month, a United Nations envoy said yesterday after holding closed-door talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The announcement in Damascus, the Syrian capital, was the clearest timeline to emerge yet from Assad's government, which has been uprooting its military bases in neighboring Lebanon under pressure from the international community.
The United Nations offered to send a team into Lebanon to monitor the withdrawal, U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larsen said. It will be up to the Lebanese government to decide whether to allow the international oversight, he said.
The U.N. offer comes amid increasing anxiety over the difficulty of ensuring that the Syrians relinquish their hold on Lebanon before parliamentary elections scheduled for May.
Speaking after meeting with Syria's top officials, Roed-Larsen said Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa had promised that "all Syrian troops, military assets and the intelligence apparatus will have been withdrawn fully and completely by April 30, 2005."
"Syria has agreed that, subject to the acceptance of the Lebanese authorities, a U.N. verification team will be dispatched to verify the full Syrian military and intelligence withdrawal," Roed-Larsen said.
In Washington, a State Department spokesman said Syria needed to follow through on its promises.
"Our position has been constant and clear. There needs to be full and immediate withdrawal of all Syrian military and intelligence forces according to a public timetable," spokesman Lou Fintor said.
Syrian soldiers entered Lebanon in 1976 at the request of some of the Christian clans who wanted protection during the country's civil war. A Syrian peacekeeping presence was given international approval with the Taif accords, the 1989 agreements that put an end to that conflict.
But since the civil war, Syria has blossomed into Lebanon's dominant force by infiltrating major institutions, establishing a vast network of intelligence agents and Lebanese proxies and intruding into even the most marginal aspects of public affairs.
Many Lebanese have come to resent Syrian domination of their country. The February assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri increased international and Lebanese opposition to Syria's presence and galvanized support for a resolution passed last year by the U.N. Security Council that ordered a withdrawal.
Syria has been gradually pulling out its forces, and many of the troops have massed in the Bekaa Valley near the Syrian border.
But the withdrawal of Syrian soldiers, which numbered at least 14,000 at the time of Hariri's assassination, is only a small part of Lebanese liberation from Damascus. It is the subtle, pervasive influence on politicians and intelligence that will be much harder to snuff out - and elusive to measure.
"You can't just uproot them like you're pulling out a tooth," said Adnan Iskaner, a political scientist at the American University of Beirut. "They have a lot of files on a lot of the [Lebanese] politicians. They'll still wield some influence, no doubt."
Lebanese are looking forward to this spring's elections as an opportunity to reshuffle the proportion of pro- and anti-Syria politicians in parliament. But the vote could be delayed by the current political crisis: Since the assassination, Prime Minister Omar Karami has resigned, seen that move rejected, threatened to resign again and is trying to form a government.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.