Lebanese celebrate as last Syrian troops leave

Nation must heal rifts, form government after 29 years of domination by neighbor

April 27, 2005|By Megan K. Stack | Megan K. Stack,LOS ANGELES TIMES

RIYAQ, Lebanon - The last Syrian soldiers in Lebanon packed into buses and rumbled homeward yesterday, putting an end to 29 years of Syrian military domination of its neighbor.

There was a carnival atmosphere in the Bekaa Valley as the last Syrian soldiers crossed the border. On the dusty hillside nearby, young Lebanese men formed a circle and broke into a victory dance to celebrate their country's newfound sovereignty. Women joined in, clapping and stomping. They waved Lebanese flags in the air and cheered as music poured from a pickup truck.

But many Lebanese were frightened about political uncertainty, sectarian divisions and the threat of violence that still shadow the country. A newly independent Lebanon has to prepare for crucial parliamentary elections this spring to establish its first autonomous government since the civil war ended in 1990.

The country will also have to grapple with the role of Hezbollah, a powerful Shiite political party and militia backed by Syria and Iran.

"It's a victory day, an independence day. We're watching the return of sovereignty to the Lebanese territories," said Fares Souaid, a Maronite Christian lawmaker and prominent Syria opponent. "But now the Lebanese have to face their own problems, and to begin to build a new state."

At a military base in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanese and Syrian soldiers bid one another goodbye yesterday morning under a blue sky. Most Syrian soldiers - whose numbers peaked at 40,000 during the civil war - had already crossed the border, but the ceremony marked the formal end of the Syrian military presence in Lebanon.

"Lebanon will endure. Its rocks, its mountains, its waters will stay," Syrian army chief Ali Habib said in farewell remarks to soldiers of both armies. "And that's thanks to the Syrian military presence, which ensured the unity of Lebanon."

Habib spoke of the "deep, brotherly feelings" between Syria and Lebanon, and pledged that the relationship between the two countries would grow even closer in coming years.

The army bands played both national anthems and medals were traded. Then the Syrian soldiers clambered aboard buses plastered with the faces of Syrian President Bashar Assad and his father, the late President Hafez el Assad.

The withdrawal represented a loss of regional clout for Damascus. Control over Lebanon and sway over Hezbollah gave Syria a bargaining tool in any peace talks with Israel.

As their buses wended through green fields and vineyards to the border, smiling Syrian soldiers waved goodbye to curious Lebanese who had gathered along the roadside to watch them pass. Many of the Lebanese waved back.

"To Damascus, to Damascus," one young Syrian soldier chanted, flashing a grin.

"It's time for them to leave, but I don't have any aggressive feelings toward them," said Kawkab Maalouf, 30, who paused outside her hair salon to watch the Syrians pass. "Syria has sacrificed a lot here."

The retreat of the Syrians was a scene that few Lebanese thought possible just a few months ago. Although anti-Syria resentment festered quietly for years, most people resisted speaking against Syria for fear of retribution. Few Lebanese believed that the international community would bother to intervene in their plight.

The Syrian soldiers crossed into Lebanon in 1976 at the invitation of a Maronite Christian government looking for protection during the civil war. Syria became an active party in the war, fighting against, in turn, Palestinian guerrillas, Israeli soldiers and Lebanese militias of various sects. About 12,000 Syrians died in Lebanon's war; a marble plaque was erected yesterday in their memory.

Syria's role shifted in 1989, when the international community gave Damascus approval to stay in Lebanon to help keep the peace between warring clans and religious groups. Once the fighting calmed down, Syria was supposed to retreat.

But Syria never left. Instead, Syrian domination spread into the Lebanese military, parliament and business community. Wide swaths of Lebanese society grew to resent the Syrians and to view their presence as a military occupation.

This year, the assassination of popular former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri stirred the anti-Syria opposition to a new frenzy. Hariri was Lebanon's most powerful Sunni Muslim, and he had resigned in protest over Syrian meddling. Many Lebanese blamed Syria for his death, which still hasn't been solved. Syria has denied any role.

Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa sent a letter to United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan yesterday announcing that the retreat from Lebanon had been completed. A U.N. team was sent to Lebanon to verify the Syrian withdrawal and to check whether the intelligence agents had also left.

Because Lebanese politics are divided along sectarian lines, religious groups are now lobbying to draw up voting districts so that their group will gain power in the new government. Tension over gerrymandering raises concerns that old sectarian animosities will flare once again.

With Syrian soldiers gone, Lebanon will also have to confront the future of Hezbollah. Annan made a thinly veiled swipe at Hezbollah in a report released yesterday, pointing out that a U.N. Security Council order to disarm Lebanon's militias had not been obeyed.

The United States considers Hezbollah a terrorist organization, but within Lebanon the party is seen as a reputable political and social organization with a heroic history of fighting Israel.

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