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Syria Ends 29-Year Presence in Lebanon

April 24, 2005

HAYY EL-RAMEL, Lebanon (AP) _ As soon as the truckloads of Syrian soldiers had left for home, Mariam Majzoub started dishing out paint to erase the last vestiges of their 29-year presence.

Her children, nephews, nieces and neighbors stuck Lebanese flags on top of the abandoned posts near her home in this tiny Bekaa Valley village, slapped whitewash on the walls and celebrated the departure date in green paint: ``Independence 2005, Sunday, April 17.″

``We started dancing in the street even before they turned the corner,″ said Mazjoub, her plump face glowing with joy. ``We could finally express ourselves, and there was nothing they could do about it.″

Syria ended its three-decade presence in Lebanon on Sunday, leaving behind only a few score troops who will attend a farewell ceremony Tuesday. Now Lebanon has to start sorting out a new relationship with its more powerful neighbor.

Syria leaves behind staunch allies who benefited from its presence. At least until parliamentary elections that are supposed to be held by May 31, its military personnel are free to move at will between the two countries. Last month, only hours after the Syrians evacuated their Beirut intelligence offices, their intelligence chief showed up at the site, as if to signal they could be back anytime they want.

Even if an anti-Syrian government takes power, its leaders are hesitant to do anything to antagonize Damascus, such as entering into peace talks with Israel.

A foretaste of possible instability came in five bombings in March and April in mainly anti-Syrian Christian areas in which two people were killed and 25 were wounded. There have also been several attacks targeting Syrian laborers in the country.

But Syria has to tread carefully too, especially where the United States, France and Saudi Arabia are concerned. Those three governments exerted the most pressure on Syria to pull out and would likely react furiously to any sign it is trying to move back in.

Damascus will have to keep up its ``good behavior″ in Lebanon, as well as rethink its policies regarding the U.S. presence in Iraq and the Arab-Israeli peace efforts, said Paul Salem, a Lebanese political analyst.

Syrian troops entered Lebanon in the second year of the country’s 1975-90 civil war and numbered about 40,000 soldiers at their peak, along with hundreds of intelligence officers who exercised wide powers of control.

Syria began withdrawing under pressure following the Feb. 14 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Opposition leaders accused Lebanon’s pro-Syrian government and Syria of involvement in the assassination _ a charge both denied. Around the time of the assassination, there were 14,000 Syrians in Lebanon.

But the two countries remain linked by a 1991 treaty that calls for close cooperation on security, foreign policy and the economy. They don’t even have diplomatic relations _ a sign, the opposition says, that Syria doesn’t recognize Lebanon’s sovereignty.

Even members of the staunchly anti-Syrian opposition have called for good relations with Damascus, including former rebel Christian army leader Gen. Michel Aoun. He waged a quixotic war on Syria in 1989 that ended with his exile in France. He now hopes to return to Lebanon.

On Lebanon’s side ``there’s a commitment to maintain strategic relations on the big issues with Syria,″ said analyst Salem.

The eastern Lebanese Bekaa valley was a strategically important region for Syria’s own security, particularly in facing arch-foe Israel. But to Bekaa villagers, strategy and high diplomacy can wait; right now they’re savoring such simple pleasures as grazing their sheep by Syrian military installations that were long off-limits to them.

``Freedom is beautiful,″ said Salim Rabah, 58, a retired merchant who lives 500 yards from an abandoned Syrian checkpoint.

Among a group of young men smoking waterpipes, the consensus was that the economy would improve because jobs would no longer go to Syrians with contacts in the military.

``Good riddance,″ said Zakariyya Ghazzawi, 23, a baker.

But Anwar Sharqiyyah, a 25-year-old farmer, felt that the retreat lacked dignity.

``The Syrians helped stop the Lebanese civil war. They were important for the country’s stability,″ he said, articulating the official Syrian line. ``We wanted them to leave, but they should have left in a more honorable manner.″

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