Saudi Arabia and Russia want Syria Out
The Russians and Germans have now called for a swift Syrian pull out from Lebanon. Washington is preparing the ground for European unity on the issue. As one European ambassador said to me recently, "the common denominator of the Bruxelles meeting was that we would all support 1559 and the UN. Even though top Baathists here continued to believe Europe would not climb on board an American led economic embargo, they may now be seeing that Washington has lined up its troops. Russia will not veto new UN resolutions that will be coming down the pike if Syria doesn't pull out completely.
The ambiguity in President Asad's interviews about whether Syria would pull out "completely" or leave troops on the Lebanese side of the border is driving the effort to make sure Syria has no escape hatch or wiggle room.
Bashar's trip to Saudi Arabia is an effort to find an Arab back door out of the closing European trap. Saudi can talk to the US and perhaps pave the way for a Syrian-Lebanese deal. But that looks unlikely now that Riyadh is taking a firm line of Syria’s withdrawal. Also the issue of the next Lebanese government is surely on the table in Riyadh. Saudi money helped build Hariri and keeps Lebanon solvent. The Royal family will surely play a roll in configuring the next government and the question of Lahoud's future. For all these reasons, Saudi Arabia is key to Syria's future in Lebanon and explains why Bashar has gone their first. With Egypt also calling for a quick and complete Syrian withdrawal, it looks like the Arab League will not be willing to come to Bashar's aid.
Kofi Annan will be issuing the UN’s report card on resolution 1559 in April. Washington and Paris want a complete Syrian withdrawal by then. If there isn’t one, they want Europe and the Arab states lined up behind them for further UN action. Bashar said he wasn’t feeling isolated in his recent interviews, but that may just be whistling past the graveyard.
Thu Mar 3, 2005 07:17 PM ET
By Dominic Evans
RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia added a key Arab voice on Thursday to mounting demands that Syria withdraw its troops swiftly from Lebanon, with Washington raising the threat of punishment if it didn't.
For decades Syrian troops have helped Damascus secure influence over its small neighbour. The United States has long called for them to leave but the pressure has soared since a former Lebanese premier was assassinated last month.
"If you believe in democracy, why not let the democracy in Lebanon flourish and grow," said U.S. President George W. Bush, who backed a U.N. resolution in September that called on Syria's troops to withdraw. "It's time for Syria to get out."
U.S. officials said Washington and European allies wanted to be ready to act quickly, maybe with unspecified sanctions and a tougher U.N. resolution, if Syria failed to pull out.
Earlier, Saudi Arabia also told Damascus to leave Lebanon when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad flew to Riyadh for crisis talks with Crown Prince Abdullah.
A regional U.S. ally, Abdullah told Assad that "Syria must start withdrawing soon, otherwise Saudi-Syrian relations will go through difficulties", one Saudi official said.
The official Syrian Arab News Agency said the Saudi comments lacked credibility, adding: "The talks were...constructive and fruitful and were conducted in an extremely amicable fashion."
Another Arab heavyweight, Egypt, also wants Assad to pull out his 14,000 troops in compliance with the resolution and the Taif Accord that ended Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war.
But Arab foreign ministers meeting in Cairo refrained from joining in the increasingly public pullout campaign, saying they were opting for quiet diplomacy by individual Arab states.
Syria's military presence dates from a 1976 intervention. Troop numbers have declined in recent years.
It has faced growing calls to end military and political dominance of its neighbour since former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated last month in a Beirut bombing.
Lebanon's opposition blamed Syria, which denies involvement, and organised protests which toppled Beirut's pro-Syrian government this week. Hariri was close to the Saudi royal family, took Saudi citizenship and spent two decades there forging construction deals that turned him into one of the world's richest men.
"They should withdraw immediately," another Saudi source said of the Syrians. "This is what we told them and this is what the whole world is telling them."
Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, who diplomats said attended the meeting in Riyadh, earlier told reporters in Egypt he had "no initiative" to resolve the Syria-Lebanon crisis.
ALLY RUSSIA SAYS 'GO'
Russia, long one of Syria's best friends, also said the troops should go.
"Syria should withdraw from Lebanon, but we all have to make sure that this withdrawal does not violate the very fragile balance which we still have in Lebanon, which is a very difficult country ethnically," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.
Moscow abstained when the Security Council adopted U.S.- and French- sponsored Resolution 1559 in September calling for foreign forces to leave Lebanon and militias to disarm. But Lavrov said the resolution, like any other Council measure, must be implemented.
Assad was quoted by Time magazine on Tuesday as saying he could pull out the remaining soldiers within months, but the United States has expressed scepticism.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said his special envoy on Syria and Lebanon would visit the region in the next few days.
"I will be sending back Terje Roed-Larsen to the region to discuss the issue of withdrawal with the two governments," he told reporters.
"My hope is that I will be able to report progress when I submit my
next report in April." He said everyone was aware of the need to avoid a situation that could destabilise Lebanon or cause tensions.