Arab leaders urge Syria to leave Lebanon
Arab leaders grew increasingly impatient at Syria's resistance to a quick, complete withdrawal of its troops from Lebanon, with Saudi leader Crown Prince Abdullah sharply telling Syria's president on Thursday to start getting out soon or face deeper isolation, according to a Saudi official.
The unusually tough message came when Syrian President Bashar Assad met Abdullah and other Saudi leaders in the kingdom's capital, the Saudi official told The Associated Press by telephone from Riyadh. Arab League foreign ministers, meeting in Cairo on Thursday, added to the pressure, expressing support for the diplomatic push by Saudia Arabia and Egypt.
Syria has resisted Arab pressure to withdraw, saying in behind-the-scenes diplomacy in recent days that it wants to keep 3,000 troops and early-warning stations in Lebanon, according to an Arab diplomat in Cairo. The Syrian army already operates radar stations in Dahr el-Baidar, on mountain tops bordering Syria. Israeli warplanes have attacked the sites in the past.
But Egypt and Saudi Arabia feel those conditions are impossible, the diplomat said.
Abdullah told Assad the kingdom insists on the full withdrawal of all Syria's 15,000 troops and intelligence forces from Lebanon and wants it to start "soon," the Saudi official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Assad replied only that he would study the possibility of carrying out a partial withdrawal before an Arab summit scheduled for March 23 in Algeria, the official said.
The Syrian leader insisted he is doing everything he can to resolve the problem but that not everything is up to him, the official said.
Saudi officials replied that the situation was his problem and warned that if Damascus refuses to comply, it would lead to tensions in Saudi-Syrian ties, the official said.
In a further sign of their impatience, the Saudis rejected a Syrian request that the upcoming Arab summit officially ask Damascus to withdraw its forces, which would give any pullback an Arab endorsement, the Saudi official said.
Saudi Arabia is said to be angry with Damascus over the Feb. 14 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who also held Saudi citizenship and was close to the Saudi royal family.
Assad returned Thursday night to Damascus, where the official Syrian Arab News Agency reported he had discussed Arab affairs, the Arab summit and Lebanon with the Saudi government. "Points of view were identical," the report said.
The Lebanese opposition has blamed Syria and its allied government in Beirut for the killing, which sparked dramatic street protests that forced the resignation of the pro-Syrian government. Damascus and the Lebanese government deny any role in the assassination.
Damage in relations with Saudi Arabia would deepen Syria's isolation after its traditional allies, Russia and France, joined the United States and United Nations in demanding a full pullout. Saudi Arabia, a close ally of Washington, often presents Syria's point of view to U.S. officials.
Egypt and Saudi Arabia fear that unless Syria removes its troops quickly from Lebanon, where it has held control for decades, the United States and other Western countries will start taking concrete action to force it to do so.
Syria's Deputy Foreign Minister Walid al-Moalim was set to arrive in Moscow on Friday for talks with Russian officials on a possible U.N. resolution urging Syria to pull out, Russia's Foreign Ministry said.
"The role played by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the (Arab League) secretary-general is to avoid situations that will be imposed on us," Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Kerbi told reporters in Cairo after the Arab League meeting.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said he had long encouraged Assad to withdraw. "I have been talking to him about the withdrawal for two years because I was afraid of the external pressure," he told reporters Wednesday. "Now I hope the issue will pass peacefully."
The Syrian troops were originally deployed during Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war ¡ª ostensibly as peacekeepers ¡ª and Syria has held sway over Lebanese politics ever since.
Egypt and Saudi Arabia are trying to get Syria to carry out the 1989 Taif Accord, which called on it to gradually make a full pullout from Lebanon ¡ª but to start it immediately and finish the withdrawal by April.
The Arab-brokered accord is named after the Saudi city of Taif, where it was signed, and Saudi officials played a key role in sealing it. It required Syria to redeploy troops to eastern Lebanon, near the Syrian border, and then negotiate a full withdrawal with the Lebanese government.
Syria never complied. But under growing pressure said last month it is willing to do so, promising to move troops closer to its border. But it hasn't yet acted.
Assad, in interviews with international media, has given varying estimates for the timing of a withdrawal, from less than two months to at least a year or not until Mideast peace is achieved.
Assad told Time magazine the troops would be out "maybe in the next few months. Not after that." In a separate interview published Monday in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, Assad said withdrawal would require "serious guarantees. In one word: peace."
In Beirut, several hundred opposition supporters marched Thursday in the funeral of the 18th victim of the Feb. 14 bomb blast that killed Hariri and tore through his guards and bystanders. They said they were prepared to resume at any time the huge protests that brought the Lebanese government down.
"People are feeling the power they have," said Henri Helou, an opposition lawmaker in the funeral procession. "If they gather in force, they can get what they want."