April 26, 2005
MASNAA, Lebanon - Syria's 29-year military presence in Lebanon ended Tuesday when Syrian soldiers flashing victory signs crossed back over the border, completing a withdrawal brought about by international pressure and massive Lebanese street protests.
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 ceremony, the Syrian intelligence chief in Lebanon, Maj. Gen. Rustom Ghazali, 10 carloads of intelligence agents and the remaining 250 Syrian soldiers crossed the border.
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.
The Syrians entered Lebanon in 1976, ostensibly as peacekeepers in Lebanon's year-old civil war. After the war ended in 1990, about 40,000 Syrian troops remained, giving Damascus the decisive say in Lebanese politics.
International pressure and Lebanese anger over the Feb. 14 assassination of former premier Rafik Hariri helped turn the tide against Syria's presence. The opposition blamed the murder on the Lebanese government and its Syrian backers, accusations both governments deny. Huge "Syria Out" demonstrations in Beirut brought down the pro-Syrian government, and U.N. and U.S. pressure intensified on Damascus until it withdrew its army.
Syria has gradually pulled out 14,000 troops over the last two months.
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."
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.
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 had been "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" U.N. Resolution 1559, which called on it to pull out.
U.N. 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 will continue and become stronger at present and in the future," he said, then took a 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 cooperation 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 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 miles from the Syrian border.
Shortly before the ceremony began, Brig. Gen. Elias Farhat, director of the Lebanese Army Orientation Department, 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, Cooperation and Coordination Treaty, which calls, among other things, for the two countries to closely coordinate on security and defense matters and jointly work to fight sabotage, espionage and prevent any hostile activity against any country.