After 25 years, Syria 'ends occupation' of Beirut

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The Independent Online

Now you see them, now you don't. The Syrians have always been good at the disappearing act and they were at it again yesterday, packing up their troubles in their old kit bags and departing from the suburbs of Beirut with a smile, a wave and a convoy of equally old trucks.

Now you see them, now you don't. The Syrians have always been good at the disappearing act and they were at it again yesterday, packing up their troubles in their old kit bags and departing from the suburbs of Beirut with a smile, a wave and a convoy of equally old trucks.

Goodbye Yarzeh, goodbye Baabda, it's a long way to Damascus but their heart's right there. Or so we were supposed to think. After all, the 400 Syrian troops who drove up the mountain highway from east Beirut were real enough.

So, the Lebanese were asking themselves last night, is the Syrian army ­ after a quarter of a century in Lebanon ­ at last going home? For back in June of 1976, they had driven down this very same highway, a soldier with a flute playing an Arab tune atop the first T-55 battle tank as Syrian officers ordered Palestinian gunmen off the streets and kicked the Christian Phalangist signposts into the nearest ravine. Not far behind them, a very raw young reporter called Fisk sat atop another tank, dutifully prophesying for his readers that the Syrian army may stay in Lebanon "for a few years". Talk about getting it wrong.

And 25 years later, you can't help wondering if the Lebanese are getting it wrong too. True, the Syrians pulled out of their boot camp opposite the Lebanese defence ministry and from the Christian Maronite suburb of Baabda. But down on the Corniche ­ in what we all called West Beirut before the capital was formally reunited ­ the same Syrian sentriesstood outside their company headquarters at Ein el-Mreisse. So, too, at the Bain Militaire, the Syrian special forces were guarding the officers' club. If this was a withdrawal, it was a mighty slow one.

Of course, the fact that the Syrians were happy to allow photographers to take pictures told its own story. The Syrians wanted to be seen to be leaving. And after months of complaints from the Lebanese Christian community ­ which repeatedly asks why the Syrian army stays in Lebanon when the Israeli army has left ­ there was good political reason for the Syrians to give the impression that they were sensitive to Christian concerns.

But in Lebanon, what you see is not necessarily the truth. With a million Syrian guest workers in Lebanon ­ and a Syrian intelligence apparatus run by Brigadier General Ghazi Kenaan from his headquarters in the eastern Lebanese town of Aanjar ­ it could be argued that the Syrians don't need their troops in Beirut to keep Lebanon under control. In any event, the 40,000 Syrian soldiers which the Western news agencies still claim to be here ­ because they failed to report the reduction in numbers over the years ­ are in reality only 21,000. Most of their armour is at least four decades old.

Besides, we have seen these withdrawals before. After the 1982 Israeli siege of Beirut, the Israelis announced the final departure of the Syrian army from the city. We watched them leave in their trucks and tanks. But it was the Israelis who were driven out of Beirut just two weeks later; and within two years, the Syrians were back, along with General Kenaan, who ostentatiously jogged along the Beirut seafront each morning ­ without bodyguards ­ to let the world know that his lads were back.

Twice more over the past two years, we've been told the Syrians were leaving. They closed down an office in Hamra, pulled their troops out of the ruins of a war-shattered supermarket and waved goodbye in 1999. Then they emptied a barracks 200 metres from my home. But they suddenly turned up again close to the airport road, manning a checkpoint once run by Palestinian guerrillas. "We need the Syrians here," the Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafic Hariri, would say in answer to all inquiries. "They will leave when we ask them to."

But of course, the Lebanese government never asked the Syrians to go. So close, so fraternal are the ties to "sister Syria", it seems, that no one can bring themselves to suggest that a quarter of a century really is a rather long time.

No, the Syrians never annexed Lebanon. There was never a Saddam-style "anchluss", despite Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir's suggestion to the contrary. And the Christian Maronites, whose patriotism overflows when they demand a Syrian withdrawal, were as quiet as mice when the Israeli army stormed into their country in 1982. But the Syrians are defending Syria in Lebanon, maintaining their battalions along the Bekaa valley just in case Ariel Sharon plans another invasion and an offensive eastwards into Syria itself.

Back in 1976, a shopkeeper in the Lebanese Bekaa town of Chtaura remarked to me that while it was always good to have visitors, "it's always nice when they go home again". So I'll correct my prediction from that tank top 25 years ago. The Syrians are going to be here for a long time yet.

Military presence

* June 1976 The Syrians arrived in Lebanon at the request of the Christian president, Sulieman Franjieh, and with a mandate from the Arab League. Ostensibly, the Syrians came to protect the Christians from the PLO, whose battle for "Palestine" had turned into an all-out attempt to destroy Lebanon's Maronite community.

* 1990 After the Lebanese civil war officially ended, a Saudi-sponsored peace agreement provided a timetable for a Syrian withdrawal; first from Beirut to the strategic Hamana-Mdeirej ridge-line and then to the Bekaa Valley.

* 1993 Abdul Halim Khaddam, the Syrian vice-president, revealed that his country's troops were staying in Beirut "at the request of the Lebanese". Within 12 months, a treaty of brotherhood and co-operation between Damascus and Beirut provided for an extended Syrian military presence ­ until both sides agreed that Lebanon no longer needed Syria's protection. The United States has always privately approved the Syrian presence.