Syria's Envoy Pledges Adherence

APRussian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov
MOSCOW -- A top Syrian envoy who visited Moscow on Friday to discuss a UN resolution urging Syria to pull out of Lebanon pledged that Damascus would fulfill an earlier pledge to redeploy its troops but refused to give a timetable.

Syria's Deputy Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem met with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, who reaffirmed the troops should leave Lebanon in line with September's United Nations Security Council resolution.

Russia's call on Syria to pull out its 15,000 troops from Lebanon added to mounting international pressure on Syria. Syrian President Bashar Assad is expected to announce in a speech before parliament Saturday that he would pull back troops to eastern Lebanon, near the Syrian border, but not make a full withdrawal, the Lebanese defense minister said Friday. Asked whether the Syrian president would announce pulling back the troops on Saturday, Mouallem replied, "I think so."

He said that he had informed Lavrov about a specific action plan in line with the 1989 Taif accord, an Arab-brokered agreement which calls for a redeployment of the Syrian forces to eastern Lebanon and eventually a full withdrawal. But he wouldn't comment on a timetable or give any further details.

"You will hear details of this plan soon agreed between the leaders of Syria and Lebanon," he told reporters.

Lavrov said that during their talks Mouallem "confirmed Syria's intention to respect the Taif agreement and the UN resolution."

"The UN resolution calls for the withdrawal of troops but it doesn't specify a timetable," he added.

Earlier this week, Lavrov told the BBC that the withdrawal must be conducted in a way that doesn't break the "fragile balance in Lebanon."

Syria, which the United States says sponsors international terrorism, is also accused by the Lebanese opposition of being behind last month's assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which plunged the nation into political turmoil.

Syrian troops entered Lebanon as peacekeepers in 1976, a year after the country's civil war began. But they became involved in the conflict, and when the war ended in 1990, Syria was the undisputed power broker of its western neighbor. In recent years, Syria has withdrawn about 10,000 troops in stages. Several thousand were pulled out after the UN resolution.

Syria has been a close ally of Moscow since the Soviet era, and the Russian government is negotiating to sell advanced anti-aircraft missiles to Damascus in defiance of pressure from the United States and Israel. Assad visited Russia in January.

Alexei Malashenko, a Middle East expert with the Moscow Carnegie Center office, said Russia's decision to apply pressure on Syria reflected its wish to play a more significant role in the regional peace process. He said that Damascus probably would listen to Russia, especially since the international community was united in demanding its troops' pullout.

"Russia did Syria a favor by agreeing to the missile sale and it is expecting a return gesture," Malashenko said.

Leading Russian business daily Kommersant speculated that Russia was concerned that Syria's reluctance to fix a timetable for its troop withdrawal could provoke a U.S. military action.

"It seems that Moscow has acknowledged that the likelihood of a military operation against Syria is very high and is trying to persuade its main ally in the Middle East to compromise, if only to protect it from a strike," the newspaper said.