Syria completes first phase of Lebanese pull-out

The giant portrait of the young Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, on the Beirut seafront had been considered an affront to the country's sovereignty.

This week it was taken down by workers, to the cheers of flag-waving Lebanese students, as Syrian intelligence officers based nearby packed up their belongings to move to the eastern Beka'a valley.

The removal of this symbol of Syrian influence in Lebanon came as officials in Beirut on Thursday declared that the first phase of Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon, precipitated by the February 14 assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, was virtually complete.

At least 4,000 out of the 15,000 troops have left Lebanon while the rest have been re-deployed to the Beka'a near the Syrian border, the officials said. The pull-out was accelerated after what diplomats described as a "brutally frank" weekend meeting between Mr Assad and Terje Roed Larsen, the UN envoy.

UN officials expect that when a Syrian-Lebanese committee meets on April 7 a "short time line" will be established for a complete withdrawal of the remaining Syrian troops and of the secret services who are accused of intimidation and meddling in Lebanese politics.

A month after the Hariri killing fuelled unprecedented anti-Syrian protests in Lebanon and concerted international pressure from the US, Europe and the Arab world, the structure of Syrian control, carefully crafted since Damascus' first military intervention in 1976, is crumbling.

A full Syrian exit, as stipulated by UN resolution 1559, would avert the threat of punitive international sanctions and at least prevent the controversy from dominating next week's Arab League summit in Algiers. But it would not end Mr Assad's international troubles.

Even after the last Syrian soldier has left, western governments will be watching out for Syrian interference in Lebanon's parliamentary elections, scheduled for May.

Lebanese opposition figures insist that Damascus will try to influence the country's politics by "remote control" through parties allied to it. They point to alleged Syrian encouragement for the return to power last week of Omar Karameh, the pro-Syrian prime minister, who had been ousted only 10 days earlier.

The results of the UN fact-finding mission that has been investigating the Hariri assassination will also help determine the international attitude towards Damascus. The team completed its work in Beirut on Wednesday and is preparing to report its findings to Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general.

Senior western diplomats say the report will be a factual document but is likely to point to a lack of seriousness on the part of the pro-Syrian Lebanese authorities in investigating the crime.

This could raise the pressure for a fully-fledged international investigation. It could also bolster the Lebanese opposition's demands for the removal of Lebanon's security chiefs, all of whom were appointed with Syria's blessing.

"There was a lot of bad faith in the investigation. They didn't go about it the way you would with such an issue," says one western diplomat in Beirut. "The political stakes were so high that the investigation came under political control. The regime realised it was vulnerable."

Syrian and Lebanese officials deny responsibility for the killing, insisting that they have been most damaged by the assassination. But if the suspicions linger, the European Union will find it difficult to restore friendlier relations with Damascus. Since the Hariri murder, the expected signing of an EU trade and co-operation agreement with Syria has effectively been put on hold.

In Washington, meanwhile, the Lebanon pull-out is only one issue in a long list of American demands. The US accuses Damascus of giving refuge to leaders of the Iraqi insurgency and of assisting radical Palestinian groups.

Analysts close to the Syrian regime say the US is asking for a fundamental change in attitude that would leave Damascus weakened and se rve the interests of Israel, which occupies Syria's Golan Heights.

But Mr Assad, like his late father Hafez, from whom he inherited the presidency in 2000, has staked the legitimacy of his rule on hard-line policies, particularly towards Israel.

The US, says one analyst, "is asking Syria to change its skin - and that's very difficult".

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