Today (Saturday, March 5, 2005) Syria’s president Bashar Assad announced that Syria will follow a two-step withdrawal of its 14,000 soldiers from Lebanon — first, through the redeployment of troops from Lebanese cities to the Bekaa Valley; secondly, a further withdrawal of troops back to the Syrian-Lebanese border.
He did not give time lines for this staged withdrawal, but I predict that at least the first step will be completed very soon, likely before March 26.
I picked March 26 because it marks the 40th day — the al Arbaeen anniversary — of the assassination of Lebanon’s former Prime Minister, Rafiq Al-Hariri. This is a traditional day during the mourning process. On that day the opposition parties would most likely organize demonstrations calling for Syrian troop withdrawals.
The opposition parties, however, are slowly losing both political and moral support. So although the planned deployment program is not enough to satisfy their agenda, they will not be able to maintain the level of massive demonstrations like the one several weeks ago, which resulted in the resignation of the government.
It was indeed a major opposition victory when Omar Karami’s four-month-old government was pushed out of office. The government’s resignation came just one day before a parliamentary session that would have seen a no-confidence motion come to a vote.
The fragility of the opposition parties’ alliance was clearly illustrated during a recent demonstration in which some protesters waved Phalange flags and displayed the portrait of former president Basheer Jmayel. Most Lebanese consider a Jmayel a traitor for agreeing to sign a deal with Israel shortly before he was assassinated in May 1982.
The strong Druze leader Waleed Jumblatt saved the day by calling on all demonstrators to raise only the Lebanese flag.
But beyond the issue of flag-waving, the opposition is based mainly on Christian and Druze parties. Those representing Lebanese Shi’a — including the Hezbollah and Amal movements — are not represented in the current colliation. And as long as the Shi’a parties remain allied with Syria, the opposition collation will remain weak.
The opposition parties also differ on major issues like disarming Hezbollah and the Palestinian camps. The Al-Taif agreement, signed by Syria and Lebanon under Arab sponsorship to end their15-year civil war (1975 –” 1990) differs from UN Resolution 1559 passed last year, which Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom once described as "inspired by Israel."
Resolution 1559’s two most important demands are in calling for “all remaining foreign forces to withdraw from Lebanon” and “for the disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias.”
But while Resolution 1559 speaks about the withdrawal of "foreign" forces from Lebanon, the Al-Taif agreement calls for a redeployment of Syrian troops to the Bekaa Valley. It also outlines specific military tasks and the length of time the troops are expected to stay in the valley.
Some opposition members argued that the Syrians have failed in their commitment to Al-Taif, since the redeployment that should have taken place two years after the agreement was signed in 1990, was put on hold.
Others, while agreeing on the redeployment of Syrian troops according to Al-Taif, feel that some Syrian army units should remain at strategic locations in Lebanon until the current Arab-Israeli conflict is over.
Last Friday (March 4) in Beirut, the well-respected Shi’a Muslim scholar Sheikh Muhammad Hussein Fadllah, delivered a warning message to the U.S. and Israel in his weekly Friday sermon, telling them not to capitalize on the political vacuum in Lebanon as a result of the government’s resignation. The warning was also directed to those Lebanese opposition parties who are demanding a total withdrawal of the Syrian troops.
But I am optimistic that the deployment of Syrian troops will trigger a positive development, rather than a much worse scenario — including another Lebanese civil war.
And there are a good number of signs pointing in that direction.
David Satterfield, U.S. deputy undersecretary of state, agreed last week that a redeployment of troops to the Bekaa Valley before parliamentary elections in May would be considered a gesture of good will on the part of the Syrians.
And soon after Karami’s resignation, Jumblatt made conciliatory remarks towards Syria. "We don’t want to be enemies with Syria or the Syrian people. We want friendship with Syria," he said, urging the protesters to cease from chanting anti-Syria slogans. "We should not forget the sacrifices made by the Syrian soldiers in fighting the Israeli occupation and keeping Lebanon united," he added.
Another opposition party leader said, "Syrian interests in Lebanon will be secured when there is a democratic system in the country.”
And Jumblatt described Hezbollah as "a key partner in the political process and in the country.” Until now, for the majority of Lebanese, disarming Hezbollah would be unthinkable and the rapid total withdrawal of the Syrian troops would leave a possible security vacuum. The opposition made it clear that it has no intention of getting into a confrontation with Hezbollah on the issue of disarming.
I believe the seeds of a civil war are not there.