Syrian deal to pull troops fraught with pitfalls

Protestors wave Lebanese flags during a demonstration against Syria in Beirut on Monday.
Protestors wave Lebanese flags during a demonstration against Syria in Beirut on Monday.AP
/ Source: NBC News

Syrian President Bashar Assad and Lebanese President Emile Lahoud agreed Monday that Syrian forces will pull back to Lebanon’s eastern Bekaa Valley by March 31 but that any further troop withdrawal will be negotiated at a later date.

NBC News’ Jim Maceda reports from Beirut on the significance of the agreement, as well as the potential for violent opposition from Hezbollah and other pro-Syrian forces within Lebanon.

After Monday's announcement, do ordinary Lebanese believe it will actually happen or is there a sense that it is too good to be true?
Well, it depends on who you speak to on the street. The Lebanese who has been part of this three-week pro-democracy movement feel somewhat encouraged. The younger kids, who are oftentimes the driving force behind these street protests, are feeling a bit more impatient and bit more discouraged.

The older folks and the leadership of the opposition are tempering their comments. On the one hand they are saying they are feeling some joy because this is, after all, the largest Syrian pullback ever — if in fact it does take place. There are indications that it has begun to take place — there is some movement of troops and material already.

But, on the other hand, these same pro-democracy members and opposition leaders are tempering their comments saying that there is a lot of joy, but also a lot of caution and a touch of skepticism as well. They’ve seen over the years at least four previous Syrian pullbacks that turned out to be totally false. They are used to dealing with what they call the “master of cosmetics” — first Hafez Assad, the former president, and now Bashar Assad, his son.

On the other hand, if you talk to Hezbollah or some pro-Syrian members of the government, they are feeling very down today. They are quite concerned that there will be a power vacuum — there are all kinds of conspiracy theories out there that now if Syrian troops pull out it will be the perfect opportunity for Israel to make a move on Lebanon.

Hezbollah is particularly concerned because Hezbollah is a Lebanese organization financed and armed by Syria. They are concerned that the Lebanese army may try to disarm them.

It is truly a mixed bag. I think we are going to see over the next week a series of potentially dangerous demonstrations and counter-demonstrations. There are already tens of thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators in the street today. On Tuesday, the two main pro-Syrian Shiite organizations, including Hezbollah, are calling for hundreds of thousands of pro-Syrian Lebanese to come out in the streets and show the world that most Lebanese are for keeping Syria here.

So, even though we have this pull-out, which apparently gives something to the international community, inside Lebanon there is this feeling that it could trigger some more tension and even potentially sectarian violence. There are already examples of that in the past 24 to 48 hours — small skirmishes, small clashes with some gunfire between pro and anti- Syrian forces in Beirut. So it could signal the beginning of a difficult period.

Is the idea that the developments in Lebanon, the so-called “Cedar Revolution,” is an example of ‘power of the people’ an over-simplification?
Well, the members of the pro-democracy movement don’t like to call it the “Cedar Revolution” — that is something that the press came up with. The pro-democracy forces call it the “Independence Intifada” or the independence uprising which is much more powerful for them because that links it to the Palestinian intifada. The pro-democracy forces truly see it is as a street phenomenon, something that grew from the street and something that is tied to the Arab independence drive. 

This movement will be made or broken, according to analysts, in the next three to four weeks. Because as Syrian forces begin to move out, you are going to have a confrontation between the pro-democracy movement here — which, of course, is supported by the United States, Europe, and some Arab countries — versus the old guard Lebanese who don’t want change, who want to continue being supported by Syria.

Unfortunately in this country, differences split along sectarian lines. The pro-Syrian group is mostly Shiite and the pro-democracy group is mostly Christian, Sunni and Druse. So we are already seeing a fault line or battle line being drawn.

It will be very tricky for this pro-democracy movement to continue. There will be some tests and they certainly aren’t stopping here. They tell us that this is just the first step and that they are going to continue pushing for a number of demands. One of them is the firing of southern Lebanese secret service directors, who head the seven intelligence networks here. They also want a thousand or more Syrian intelligence agents in this country out of the country. They also want an independent investigation to get to the killers of the former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. So, they have specific demands and they will not even negotiate with President Emil Lahoud for an interim government until those demands are met. 

It will be interesting to see what will happen in the next three weeks. Either the government of Lahoud, a pro-Syrian government, will try to reach out and engage the protestors in the street.  Or the president will totally reject them and say, 'OK, you’ve got your opinion and we’ve got ours and we, the pro-Syrians, don’t believe you ideas will work here.' 

We’ll see in the weeks ahead whether this movement will change things on the ground, or whether it will simply be marginalized.

What has been the response to Hezbollah's call for demonstrations in support of Damascus?
It’s hard to tell. I suspect that there will be quite a lot of people in the streets because of the pervasiveness of the Syrian presence here.

Even if 14,000 Syrian troops leave, there are an equal number of Syrians or pro-Syrians who really control this country. From bankers and businessmen to politicians, there are hundreds and hundreds of Syrians who really run this country and have turned Lebanon — particularly over the last 10 to 15 years — into a vassal state of Syria. So, I would suspect that you will see a lot of people coming out. President Lahoud is pro-Syrian, so you’ll have his whole entourage, a lot of other government people, businessmen who will come out. There is a lot of Syrian money in the banks here, they keep about a million Syrians in jobs.

So, there will be a lot of Syrian workers in the streets. Certainly Hezbollah and Amal (another Shiite movement) will draw supporters, keeping in mind that the Shiites are the largest religious group here. So, putting it all together, you might have tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of protesters, as Sheik Nasrallah has suggested, in the streets Tuesday.

There is potential there to show that there is not just a pro-democracy movement, but there is also a pro-Syrian strain.

Is there a fear that Syria’s withdrawal could lead to a resumption of civil war, sectarian violence?
There is a concern. Most of the top leaders I have spoken with on both sides — both Hezbollah and pro-democracy leaders — say that they want nothing but peace. They say they will not do anything to provoke, that they understand the lessons of violence, that nothing can be won through confrontation. Whether it’s Nasrallah [of Hezbollah] on one hand or [Druze leader] Walid Jumblatton the other. These people seem to be determined to make their point in a peaceful way.

However, on the street level, you can feel the tension. There have been clashes and small firefights in the past couple of days. Personally, as a reporter, there is a built-in barometer — I have a body clock and I can feel the difference already in the week that I’ve been here. There certainly has been a ratcheting-up of tension and an increased number of Lebanese security forces in the streets. I counted one about every 80 yards going to and from a demonstration yesterday. Security forces are out there in truckloads, armored APC are out there, there is a lot of tension in the street and a feeling of increased animosity between the two sides. 

If Syrian forces do pull out, that could lead to clashes. It is not at all clear, based Monday’s agreement between the two governments when those Syrian troops would move. All they have to do, by the end of March is move to the Bekaa Valley.

Now the Bekaa Valley is a very wide valley — if you are in the Bekaa Valley you could be 20 miles from the border with Syria or 20 miles from the mountains overlooking Beirut — it’s that wide. So, it could mean very little movement or it could mean a lot of movement.

The second phase of the pullout into Syria is open for negotiation and they have the whole month of April to work out some agreement and then move troops based on that.

So, it seem to me, based on the basic parameters of this agreement, that it’s quite likely that come May — when parliamentary elections are happening in this country — that there will still be Syrian forces in the Bekaa Valley or beginning to move out or perhaps not, depending on what they negotiate. So, that seems me was the biggest snub from Assad to [President] Bush, to [President Jacques] Chirac, to the Germans, to Crown Prince Abdullah and the international community.

Bush has said no half-measures, that the troops needed to leave so there can be free and fair elections. Based on Monday’s agreement, it doesn’t seem that will happen.

So, it is still a very volatile, unpredictable situation. The bottom line is —it’s a Baathist response from Assad. He still believes he can buy time. He’s still not quite getting the new political reality surrounding him. 

As Rami Khouri, the editor at large of The Daily Star in Beirut, said it is, “A typical Baathist reaction, minimal compliance and maximum defiance.”