BEIRUT, Lebanon – Syria will pull its army out of heavily populated central Lebanon this week, the government announced Wednesday, in a new easing of its military presence in its neighbor, where Damascus has long dominated politics.
The announcement came amid heightened regional tensions — escalating Israeli-Palestinian fighting in the West Bank, increased skirmishes along the Lebanese-Israeli border and Israel's threats of retaliation against Syria and Lebanon for their support of Lebanese guerrillas.
But the expected pullback appeared aimed at addressing domestic concerns in Lebanon, where some have complained about the presence of Syria's troops and its political domination.
Syria, which has had some 25,000 troops in Lebanon, first sent its military into the country in 1976 to quell its civil war, which ended in 1990.
In June, Syria pulled its troops out of the Lebanese capital, Beirut.
The Lebanese presidential palace and army, which announced the latest Syrian pullback, did not specify how many Syrian troops would redeploy or from what areas. But they said the operation should be completed within a week.
The redeployment follows a visit to Beirut last month by Syrian President Bashar Assad — the first by a Syrian leader in almost three decades — for talks with his Lebanese counterpart, Emile Lahoud.
A Lebanese military spokesman said Syrian forces will withdraw from the heavily populated Mount Lebanon areas around Beirut and redeploy along the strategic Dahr el-Baidar mountain pass, 15 miles east of the Lebanese capital.
Two Syrian army units will remain stationed closer to Beirut to act as reserve support for the Lebanese army, the spokesman said on condition of anonymity.
Under a 1989 pact, Syrian troops should have left the Beirut area and redeployed east into the Central Mountain range and close to the Syrian border by the early 1990s, but Beirut asked the Syrians to stay while the Lebanese military was being rebuilt.
Since the civil war, Syria has called the shots in Lebanon through its army and through influence in the Lebanese government and military. The Lebanese government has repeatedly brushed aside mainly Christian calls for a Syrian withdrawal.
Opposition Christians want Syria's troops to leave altogether, saying there is no need for Syrian troops since Israel ended its 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000.
The government and the Muslim majority call for the Syrians to remain in Lebanon until there is a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace.