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Syria Weighs Impact of Lebanon Withdrawal

Syria says that after withdrawing the last of its troops from Lebanon this week, it has now fulfilled its international obligations under U.N. Resolution 1559. But, as VOA's Sonja Pace reports from Damascus, the full impact of that move is yet to be determined.

As the last Syrian soldiers said farewell to Lebanon and came across the border they were greeted by dozens of mostly young well-wishers cheering, dancing and waving Syrian flags.

But, the welcoming rallies were small and limited to the border-crossing area.

In Damascus emotions have been mixed. A young government worker tells VOA privately he thinks Syrian troops should have left Lebanon long ago. A young woman says - also in private - she agrees but does not like the way it all happened in the end.

Professor Marwan Kabalan of the Center for Strategic Studies at Damascus University tells VOA the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon is a mixed blessing.

"The good thing is this actually will save money for Syria. We can spend this money on development, education, on health, on other issues which people care more about," Mr. Kabalan says. "The bad thing is perhaps this has undercut Syrian regional influence dramatically, I believe."

Syrian troops first entered Lebanon as an Arab buffer force in 1976 after the start of Lebanon's civil war. Syria became increasingly entangled in Lebanese affairs and tightened its grip on the country after the war ended in 1990 - mainly through its intelligence network.

Lebanese opposition protestor waves national flag as Syrian military intelligence agents leave their office at Ramlet el-Baida in Beirut
Growing Lebanese resentment of the Syrian presence received a boost last year with the passage of the American and French-sponsored U.N. Resolution 1559, which included demands for a complete Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon. The spark that forced the Syrians into action was the assassination in Beirut in February of the popular former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri and subsequent massive street demonstrations calling on the Syrians to get out.

In the end, this week Syrian Army Chief General Ali Habib said his farewells at a modest ceremony in the eastern Bekaa Valley.

General Habib spoke of an honorable mission accomplished. His Lebanese counterpart spoke of brotherly ties and strong bonds.

Many Lebanese were less charitable and did not hide their glee at the Syrian departure. The mood inside Syria was more muted.

Professor Marwan Kabalan says there is no doubt it was a tough decision for the Syrian government.

"Lebanon was the most important cornerstone in Syrian foreign policy, especially in the Arab world. So that [the withdrawal] was a key decision to take, a very hard one, a very tough one," Mr. Kabalan says.

Professor Kabalan says Syria does not want to be seen as having been forced out of Lebanon. But, he says it was pressure from the United States that forced not only the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, but that is also forcing Syria to stay out of Iraqi affairs and the Israeli-Palestinian issue. He says Syria is left with very little regional leverage.

But, he also says while Syria may have pulled its troops and intelligence assets out of Lebanon that does not mean it has lost all interest there - mainly concerning security and Israel.

"Lebanon has for the past decades been the weakest flank of Syria and geopolitically speaking Syria cannot say, OK, we are going to disengage, we're not going to interfere especially if you are going to have a pro-Israeli government in Lebanon," Mr. Kabalan says. "This is a key issue for Syria and this will add to the security dilemma for Syria. You have Iraq, you have the Americans in Iraq, you have Israel and if you're going to have a pro-Israeli government in Lebanon, this is a key issue."

Still Professor Kabalan says at least for now Syria is not likely to interfere in Lebanon because the world is watching. But, he says Damascus will be keen to retain its local Lebanese allies on the ground, including the influential Hezbollah faction and its armed militia.