By Lin Noueihed  RIYYAK, Lebanon (Reuters) – Syria withdrew its last soldiers and intelligence agents from Lebanon Tuesday, ending a 29-year military presence in its small neighbor. s the Syrian troops crossed the frontier in green buses, many Lebanese hailed their departure as the start of a new era, but analysts said Damascus would remain influential. “With the completion of the Syrian forces’ withdrawal from Lebanon, a new political era in the relations between the two brethren countries starts based on close cooperation in all fields,” Lebanon’s new Prime Minister Najib Mikati said. Syria told the United Nations it had completed its pullout from Lebanon in line with Security Council resolution 1559.

Syria “would like to officially inform you that the Syrian Arab forces stationed in Lebanon, at the request of Lebanon and under an Arab mandate, have fully withdrawn all their military, security apparatus and assets…” Foreign Minister Farouq al-Shara said in a letter to the world body.

Syrian forces entered in 1976 to try to end Lebanon’s civil war which had begun the previous year. However, the conflict did not end until 1990. At different times, Syrian forces had fought Muslim and Christian militias, Lebanese army units, Palestinian guerrillas and the Israeli army.

Pro-Syrian Lebanese officials say 12,000 Syrian soldiers were killed in Lebanon and many more wounded.

The Syrians dominated Lebanon after the civil war, incurring little serious international opposition until a U.N. Security Council resolution in September demanded their withdrawal.

The Feb. 14 assassination of Lebanese former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, blamed by many Lebanese on Damascus, triggered large anti-Syrian protests in Beirut and an outcry abroad.

That prompted President Bashar al-Assad to announce on March 5 that he would bring his forces home. The withdrawal, involving about 14,000 troops, took about seven weeks to complete.

“We are very happy, we are celebrating,” Khaled Saleh, 24, a computer consultant said. “I have been asking for this all my life.” A score of young Lebanese men performed the traditional dabke dance in celebration as the Syrians were leaving.

Analysts say the withdrawal will end Syria’s domination of Lebanon but not end its influence altogether.

“Definitely there will be a reduction in Syrian involvement in internal Lebanese affairs. They will no longer select high-ranking officials,” Samir Baroudi, a political scientist at Beirut’s Lebanese American University, told Reuters.

“There will continue to be high-level coordination between the two countries as far as bilateral economic relations and the overall peace process in the Middle East.”


Anti-Syrian opposition leaders welcomed the pullout.

“This is a historic day for Lebanon. It ends a long period full of mistakes and hegemony,” legislator Nayla Mouawad told Reuters. “The withdrawal met the opposition’s demands and leads the way for new balanced relations with Syria.”


The United Nations was due to issue a report on Syria’s compliance with the Security Council demand later Tuesday.

A U.N. team was expected to arrive in Damascus to verify the withdrawal. It hopes to obtain maps of Syria’s former positions and reports on the status of its military and intelligence presence in Lebanon, a U.N. official said. The team then travels to Lebanon, where it is to verify the Syrian withdrawal.

Cars carrying the last intelligence officers, including their chief, Rustum Ghazaleh, crossed the Lebanese-Syrian border at the Masnaa crossing after attending a farewell ceremony.

Eight buses carrying Syrian soldiers followed. Troops hoisting Syrian flags and pictures of Assad smiled and waved.

“Farewell to our brothers in the Syrian Arab Army!” a Lebanese officer had shouted earlier at the ceremony on the nearby Riyyak airbase in the Bekaa Valley.

“Goodbye!” his men responded, to about 200 Syrian troops.

“We will never forget them,” soldiers chanted in reference to comrades who died in Lebanon.

“We sacrifice our blood and soul for you, Bashar,” Syrian troops shouted.

Thousands of Syrians gave the soldiers a heroes’ welcome as they crossed the Jdeideh border post into Syria. Vehicles transporting the returning troops were mounted by civilians carrying Syrian flags and pictures of Assad.

Lebanon’s new government, led by Mikati, has pledged to hold free and fair elections on time in May. Parliament began a two-day meeting Tuesday to discuss the new government’s policy statement and vote it into office.

France and Germany urged the new Lebanese government to push ahead with plans to hold elections after the Syrian pullout.

“Today is an important day for Lebanon because it’s the end of the presence of the Syrian military and intelligence agents on Lebanese soil,” French President Jacques Chirac told a joint news conference with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.