April 26, 2005
Syrian troops end 29-year military presence in Lebanon in farewell ceremony
MASNAA, Lebanon (AP) - The last Syrian soldiers crossed into Syria on Tuesday, waving and flashing victory signs, surrendering to international and Lebanese popular demands and ending its 29-year military presence in its smaller neighbour. Syrians across the border danced and waved flags welcoming them home.
At a farewell ceremony near their shared border, a Syrian commander told Lebanese troops: "Brothers in arms, so long." The soldiers responded, "So long."
A commander of Lebanese soldiers then addressed his words to the Syrians, saying: "Brothers in arms, thank you for your sacrifices." His soldiers repeated, "Thank you for your sacrifices."
After the hour-long ceremony, the Syrian intelligence chief in Lebanon, Maj. Gen. Rustom Ghazali and 10 carloads of intelligence agents crossed into Syria at the border point of Masnaa. The last 250 Syrian troops in Lebanon, who'd participated in the ceremony at the nearby army air base at Rayak, weren't far behind.
At the crossing, about 25 Lebanese civilians saluted Ghazali, who got out of his car and accepted a poster from a Lebanese man that said: "Thank you Syria." On the Syrian side, hundreds of Syrians waved flags and danced in the streets of Jedeidit Yabous, waiting for the soldiers to emerge.
The Syrians entered Lebanon in 1976, ostensibly as peacekeepers in the year-old civil war. After the war ended in 1990, about 40,000 Syrian troops remained, giving Damascus the decisive say in Lebanese politics.
Anger over the Feb. 14 assassination of former premier Rafik Hariri helped turn the tide against Syria's longtime presence in Lebanon. Unconvinced by Syrian and Lebanese government denials of involvement, pressure to leave snowballed. Huge "Syria Out" demonstrations in Beirut brought down the pro-Syrian government, and UN and U.S. pressure intensified on Damascus until it withdrew its army.
Shaaban al-Ajami, the mayor of nearby Lebanese border village of Majdal Anjar, said he was happy to see the Syrians leave: "I feel like someone who was suffocated and jailed and has finally emerged from jail."
In the capital, Beirut, meanwhile, relatives of Lebanese prisoners held in Syrian jails scuffled with the army and beat legislators' cars with the Lebanese flag during a demonstration Tuesday outside parliament demanding the release of their loved ones. Two protesters were seen being loaded into a Civil Defence ambulance while two others received first aid at the scene of the demonstration in downtown Beirut.
With the Syrians leaving, its Lebanese allies in the security services also were collapsing. Maj. Gen. Jamil Sayyed - often described as the enforcer of Damascus' policy - announced his resignation Monday, and another top security commander left the country with his family. Lebanon's new Cabinet, led by Prime Minister Najib Mikati, went to Parliament on Tuesday to seek a vote of confidence that will allow preparations for May elections.
Gen. Ali Habib, Syria's chief of staff, said in a speech during the departure ceremony, that President Bashar Assad had decided to pull out his troops after the Lebanese army was "rebuilt on sound national foundations and became capable of protecting the state."
Habib said Syria had no "ambitions in Lebanon, except to protect it."
By withdrawing, Habib, said that Syria will have "fulfilled all its obligations toward" UN Resolution 1559, which called on it to pull out.
UN secretary general Kofi Annan has dispatched a team led by Senegalese Brig. Gen. Mouhamadou Kandji to verify the withdrawal.
Habib stressed that the withdrawal does mean an end to Syrian-Lebanese ties.
"The relations do not emanate from (Syria's) military presence. The relations will continue and become stronger at present and in the future," he said, then took a swipe at the United States, saying, "anyone who thinks that the history of people can be eliminated by statements made by this or that state is mistaken."
Lebanese army commander Michel Suleiman lauded the role of Syria's army in Lebanon, crediting it with rebuilding the army, maintaining peace among the country's 17 sects and ending the 1975-90 civil war.
He pledged continued co-operation between the two countries in several fields, including the fight on terror.
"Together we shall always remain brothers in arms in the face of the Israeli enemy," said Suleiman.
The farewell ceremony opened with Lebanese and Syrian military commanders placing a wreath of flowers at a cornerstone they laid for a monument to commemorate the Syrian military presence in Lebanon. As military honours were read out, troops punctuated the ceremony with chants supportive of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The 250 Syrian soldiers in red berets and camouflage, the last Syrian troops remaining in Lebanon, shouted "we sacrifice our blood and our souls for you, oh Bashar!" during the ceremony at Rayak, a few kilometres from the Syrian border.
Recipients of medals exchanged as a sign of appreciation included Ghazali, the Syrian intelligence chief in Lebanon, and Brig. Gen. Asef Shawkat, Assad's brother-in-law whom he had recently appointed as Syria's chief of military intelligence.
On the Lebanese side, Suleiman received a medal from the Syrian government.
Shortly before the ceremony began, Brig. Gen. Elias Farhat, director of the Lebanese Army Orientation Department said, "Those are the ones left," referring to Syrian soldiers who marched in Rayak, holding their AK-47 rifles to their chests.
He said the Syrian withdrawal does not mean an end to Lebanese-Syrian relationship. "The military deployment of the Syrian army is part of this relationship which links the two countries," he said.
Farhat pointed to the 1991 Lebanese-Syrian Brotherhood, Co-operation and Co-ordination Treaty, which calls, among other things, for the two countries to closely co-ordinate on security and defence matters and jointly work to fight sabotage, espionage and prevent any hostile activity against any country.