The Syrian and Lebanese general staffs are putting together a joint plan for the withdrawal of all 13,000 Syrian troops from Lebanon by the end of the winter. Syria’s decision to wind down its 30-year military presence in Lebanon was announced by Syrian foreign minister Farouk a-Shara, in talks with US secretary of state Colin Powell in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, Tuesday, Nov. 11, and a day later by president Bashar Assad in a meeting with UN Middle East envoy Terje Roed-Larsen in Damascus.
After the withdrawal, the Syrians wish to retain a nucleus – 3,000-5,000 troops – to guard their four radar stations in Lebanon – one each atop Mt. Barukh and Mt. Sanin in central Lebanon, one at the Dahar al Baidar key point commanding the Beirut-Damascus highway and the fourth at Bsharri in the north.
In their talks with Powell and Larsen, Syrian leaders stressed that Damascus had decided to abide by UN security council resolution 1559 which calls for all remaining foreign forces to leave Lebanon and the disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias. Assad and Shara said that after the Syrian withdrawal is complete, Israel must begin to comply with UN Security Council resolutions 224 and 338 and start pulling out of the Golan Heights.
The US government reciprocated with secret messages through no less than four separate channels – according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Washington – pointing up the importance it attaches to the Lebanese elections.
The first was a conventional Note through the US ambassador to Damascus. Syria’s decision to withdraw its troops from Lebanon was welcomed, but Washington also demanded full implementation of Resolution 1559, namely, the dismantling of Hizballah militias too. If the Hizballah issue is not resolved by April 2005, Washington warned, the United States will consider applying to the Security Council again for sanctions.
UN envoy Larsen carried the second message.
No gerrymandering in Lebanon
Instead of receiving him in the presidential palace’s giant foyer, Assad led the envoy to a private office in a remote corner of the building for a three-hour one-on-one with no other Syrian officials present. Our sources report that the message from Washington that Larsen used this occasion to put on the table demanded a “clean” election in Lebanon on March 21. The UN envoy firmly informed Assad that all his goodwill diplomatic gestures would count for nothing in Washington if its military intelligence and proxy Lebanese secret police were caught meddling in candidate selection or subverting the vote.
For America, Larsen told Assad, a fair election is sine qua non and he advised him to see the issue through Western eyes. Critical elections are taking place in Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine in the first three months of 2005, and the Bush administration will brook no Syrian interference to pervert the results.
The third message, dealing with US and French interests in Lebanon, was carried by French president Jacques Chirac‘s emissaries to Assad. Since fair elections are seen by America as a function of the country’s constituency divisions, the Syrian ruler was cautioned that the Bush administration would come down hard on gerrymandering designed to keep only pro-Syrian candidates in the race. Lebanon, the envoys said, must be apportioned into voting districts that granted each ethnic and religious community fair parliamentary and administration representation.
On the question of French interests, Chirac’s messengers were blunt: Paris would not stand for the ballot being used to “jeopardize or eclipse” France’s best ally in Lebanon, former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, or moves against his power bases in Beirut and the southern port city of Sidon. DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Lebanon note that Hariri enjoys a large majority in Beirut, while his sister, Bahiye, rules the political roost in Sidon.
That was not all from Paris. Assad was also put on notice that any further mischief to veteran Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt would not be tolerated by Paris.
According to our intelligence sources, in mid-November, Jumblatt’s people complained to his American and French contacts of a Syrian attempt to kill his deputy Marwan Hamada a month earlier. Now, the Druzes claim they have corroborating evidence in the form of a videotape documenting the assassination attempt, apparently for the eyes of Syrian intelligence.
Mubarak carried the fourth American message to the Syrian leader.
According to our Middle East sources, both parties were reluctant. The Egyptian leader was finally prevailed on by the United States and France to advise a balky Assad to come over the Sharm al-Sheikh without delay in his own best interests. At their meeting on Monday, November 29, Mubarak echoed the US-French warning to Assad that he risked UN sanctions if he failed to implement Resolution 1559 to the letter by disarming and dismantling Hizballah’s militias and ensuring free and fair elections in Lebanon.