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Last Updated: Sunday, 13 March, 2005, 05:53 GMT
Syria looks to life after Lebanon
By Keith Adams
BBC News, Damascus

The UN special envoy, Terje Roed-Larsen, left Syria on Saturday with a promise that the international community had been trying to wring from the country's government for months.

Syrian troops heading towards the frontier in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley
Syria will face new challenges without troops in Lebanon
President Bashar al-Assad has now agreed to a pull-out of all Syrian forces from Lebanon, and the diplomatic pressure that had been mounting on Syria since the assassination last month of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri may now recede.

Mr Hariri had fallen out with the Syrian authorities, and many within Lebanon and the wider international community had blamed Syria for his death.

Huge demonstrations in Beirut, both for and against Syria, captured the world's attention and precipitated Syria's decision to withdraw.

But to some they illustrate divisions that could tear Lebanon apart.

Power vacuum?

When Syrian troops entered the country in 1976, it was imploding through civil war. The aim of the Syrian intervention was to bring peace.

Some fear that a Lebanese opposition, emboldened by foreign support for reform, could destabilise the country and risk a return to civil unrest.

When you put a complete society in a bottle for 25 years, you cannot expect people to get out ready to fight
Yasseen Hassalah
Syrian opposition activist
Dr Samir al-Taki, an analyst and adviser to the Syrian government, believes the international community "should help the reconciliation, not the inflammation of the situation within Lebanon".

The departing Syrian troops, he believes, could leave a dangerous power vacuum in their wake.

The Syrian government, says Dr al-Taki, sees the world through the prism of the conflict with its arch enemy.

He pointed from my hotel window in Damascus to the mountains of the south-west.

"Climb them and you can see the Israeli troops."

Israel's occupation of the Golan Heights is a source of humiliation and a fount of nationalism in Syria.

The country has been a staunch supporter of the Hezbollah militia group. Lebanon has given Syria a second front against Israel, and perhaps some leverage it could now lose.

New Syrian vision?

The peaceful way Lebanon appears to be freeing itself from Syrian influence has also thrown a spotlight on Syria's own human rights record.

The events in both countries come at a time of great change in the Middle East.

Military intervention begins in 1976
30,000 troops in Lebanon during 1980s, currently 14,000
Syrian forces help end Lebanese civil war in 1990 and maintain peace
Calls for Syrian withdrawal increase in 2000 after Israeli pullout from southern Lebanon
UN resolution calling for foreign forces' withdrawal in Sept 2004

Some commentators think that elections in Iraq and the Palestinian territories in January herald a new democratic dawn in the region. Some think not.

Pro-government demonstrators told me this week that Syria was reforming at its own pace. Holding pictures of President Assad aloft they condemned the US for what they call foreign interference.

Bashar succeeded his father, Hafez, who died in 2000. Even though the transition was far from democratic, many expected the young eye surgeon to bring the leadership a new vision.

A brief period of liberalisation did follow, but it was short-lived. Some saw this as evidence of a reforming president still battling against a powerful old guard.

Yasseen Hassalah, writer and opposition activist, is a member of an opposition coalition which is calling on the government to repeal its 42-year-old state of emergency.

He says there is more freedom now than there was five years ago, but Syrians are still too afraid to be politically active.

"When you put a complete society in a bottle for 25 years, you cannot expect people to get out of the bottle strong and ready to fight."

Syria appears to have bowed to international pressure by agreeing to withdraw from Lebanon.

But with the world's lens now focused on Damascus, and with the appetite in Washington for spreading Western-style democracy, many here expect more demands to follow.

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