DAMASCUS, Syria – The leaders of Syria and Lebanon announced Monday that Syrian troops would be withdrawn to Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley (search) by March 31, but a complete pullout will be deferred until after further negotiations.
The agreement by Syrian President Bashar Assad (search) and Lebanese President Emile Lahoud (search) sets in motion the process of implementing Damascus' decision to pull back its forces in the neighboring country.
Syrian troops will pull back from northern and central Lebanon to the east, near Syria's border. Then, military officials from both countries will decide within a month how many Syrian troops will remain in the Bekaa Valley and how long they will stay there. Assad has not mentioned Syria's intelligence forces in Lebanon, which President Bush has said must immediately leave Lebanon along with Syria's soldiers.
After a negotiated timeframe, the two governments will "agree to complete the withdrawal of the remaining forces," the statement from the two leaders said.
But Monday's agreement did not set a specific timetable for that complete withdrawal, which could fall short of international demands that Syria completely pull its troops from its western neighbor.
However, it stated, "The Syrian and Lebanese agree on continuing the withdrawal of Syrian Arab forces."
The United States reacted warily to the news.
"Well, we need to see by action, not words, and I think we've made that clear. Syria knows what they need to do, and Syria needs to follow through with action. Actions speak much louder than words," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.
"Until Syrian forces and intelligence agents are out of Lebanon, a full withdrawal under the terms of a U.N. Security Council resolution is not respected," added Adam Ereli, deputy spokesman at the State Department.
Other observers said the Syrian vow should be taken with little more than a grain of salt.
"It's called a diplomatic bone toss. It means trying to throw a bone to keep the dogs off the scent," said Marc Ginsberg, former ambassador to Morocco and a FOX News foreign affairs analyst. "There's no doubt about it … the Syrians have no real intention of really doing anything that would mark the president's commitment to force Syria out of Lebanon."
"One day he [Assad] wants to be your new best friend, the next day he's pounding his chest so we have to see which Bashar Assad comes out of the closet next," Robert Jordan, former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, told FOX News.
He also stressed the need for Syria's secret service to exit Lebanon if Damascus is to successfully hold elections in May.
"The secret service can poison the environment, especially at a time when they're preparing for elections in Lebanon," Jordan said, saying the agents can instill fear in the community and influence voters. "This is not what democracy is about so it's critically important not to have any foreign occupation."
On a better note, he said, it's key that countries such as Egypt, France and Russia are in agreement with the U.S. on the need for complete and immediate withdrawal.
"Everyone is on message right now and I think that's a really positive development," Jordan said.
Syrian Troops Pack It In
Soon after word of the agreement came, Syrian military vehicles and personnel were seen moving east in the first signs of a pullback. Syrian troops in the region had stayed put for days before Monday's movement.
Journalists saw two Syrian military trucks loaded with furniture heading east up the Lebanese mountains. A jeep carrying a general also drove from the Ain Dara area through an intersection on the Beirut-Damascus highway and climbed the road toward the Dahr El-Baidar mountain pass leading to the Bekaa Valley.
Seven empty trucks came down the mountain to the Syrian positions, apparently to load supplies. Two battle tanks were parked on the side of the road, pointed eastward.
Two more trucks loaded with supplies headed up the mountain. The soldiers inside each truck smiled and waved at journalists.
The meeting between Assad and Lahoud came amid intense U.S.-led international pressure on Syria (search) to withdraw its 14,000 troops from Lebanon and to stop interfering in its neighbor's affairs.
White House counsel Dan Bartlett echoed the words of Bush, who said anything less than a complete withdrawal is merely a half-measure and is in complete contradiction of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559. That resolution calls for the complete withdrawal of Syrian troops and secret intelligence.
"The pressure is on Syria to live up to the international community's demands and fulfill the desires of the Lebanese people," Bartlett told FOX News. "We'll continue to make clear that they understand that the international community is not going to stand by and let Assad and have these kinds of half-measures — but to live up to his international demands."
In Beirut, several thousand anti-Syrian demonstrators gathered at central Martyrs' Square, chanting "Syria Out!" waving Lebanese red, white and green flags, and singing the national anthem, keeping up the peaceful campaign against Syrian control that began after the assassination of former premier Rafik Hariri (search) on Feb. 14.
Bush: 'We're Making Progress'
Anti-Syrian sentiment in Lebanon has soared since Hariri's death, which many Lebanese have blamed on Damascus and their own country's pro-Syrian government. Both governments deny such claims.
In Hariri's hometown of Sidon, unknown assailants attacked sleeping Syrian workers Sunday night with wooden boards and sharp metal objects, injuring three, Lebanese security officials said.
Assad insists his decision to pull back his forces is not a result of pressure that has mounted against his government since Hariri's killing.
Bush, citing the tens of thousands of peaceful protesters in Lebanon calling for freedom, sovereignty and independence, said there's a clear trend toward democracy in the Middle East.
During his weekly radio address over the weekend, the president said freedom is on the march, but acknowledged the road to freedom would not be easy. Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle agree there will be bumps in the road.
"I think we're making progress — it's moving in the right direction. But what has really changed here is the fact that the Arab nations — nations of the Middle East — Syria's neighbors and friends are calling on Syria to get out of Lebanon and get out of Lebanon now," said Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb.
Added Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif.: "The United States and our allies have really got to keep the pressure up. They're going to try and split Europe and the United States, try to split the Arab world and weaken the resolve of the international community to get Syria out."
Syria, backed by its troop presence in Lebanon, has dominated its smaller neighbor's politics since its civil war ended in 1990. Syria's military presence and the country's support of Lebanon's anti-Israeli Shiite Muslim militant group Hezbollah (search ) has angered both the United States and Israel.
Hezbollah's powerful leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah (search ) has called for a peaceful demonstration in central Beirut on Tuesday to show loyalty to Damascus.
Nasrallah said the protest was to denounce international interference, show support for resistance movements and foil any attempts to make a peace deal with Israel.
The huge anti-Syrian campaign in Lebanon, which led to the toppling of its pro-Syrian government, has angered many Syrians, who appear to have unanimously backed Assad's decision to pull his troops back.
"The two governments in Damascus and Beirut were ... discussing more further steps to fulfill the Taif Accord to end the Syrian presence in Lebanon," Monday's English-language daily Syria Times said in its editorial.
The 1989 Arab-brokered Taif Accord (search ) calls for Syria to move its troops to the Lebanese border and for both countries to then negotiate the withdrawal.
FOX News' Kelly Wright and The Associated Press contributed to this report.