Damascus has denied any link between the redeployment of about 3,000 of its soldiers in Lebanon and the UN Security Council resolution adopted on 2 September, which urges the withdrawal of Syrian forces from the country.

‘It is a coincidence that this comes after the UN resolution,’ says a Syrian government official in London. ‘It is the fourth redeployment of Syrian forces in Lebanon since 2000 under an agreement between Beirut and Damascus.’

The redeployment began on 21 September when Syrian troops started dismantling coastal hilltop bases south of Beirut and pulling back to the Bekaa valley, near the Syrian border. Some of the troops have also returned to Syria. Further withdrawals are expected from bases at Tripoli and Akkar in the north and from northeastern Bekaa.

‘It is to do with the Lebanese authorities,’ says the spokesman. ‘We deal with Lebanese President Lahoud and the Lebanese parliament, both of which are democratically elected. The Syrian troops are in Lebanon because Beirut asked us to come. If they say they do not want us, we will go.’

Syrian troops first entered Lebanon in 1976 during the civil war, at the end of which it had about 35,000 soldiers in the country. The 1989 Taif Accord stipulated the redeployment of the Syrian army to areas close to the border within a period of two years. Damascus still has about 17,000 soldiers in the country. Security Council resolution 1559, which was sponsored by Washington and Paris, demands the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Lebanon.

‘All this fuss is very unusual,’ says the spokesman. ‘The UN Security Council meets when something threatens international peace. Our presence in Lebanon does not threaten international peace. Also, Beirut has not complained, so it is an internal matter. The Syrian presence in Lebanon is both legal and popular. The UN resolution is simply pressure against Syria for the benefit of the Israelis.’

Beirut also rejected the resolution. ‘These forces are on our territory on the request of the Lebanese government,’ Deputy Prime Minister Issam Fares told the UN General Assembly on 22 September. ‘Lebanon considers the presence of these troops dependent on security conditions in the region.’

He added: ‘[The resolution] calls for the withdrawal of all non-Lebanese forces still in Lebanon. There are Israeli forces occupying parts of Lebanon. We call with you for immediate withdrawal of these forces. We also call for this forum for Israel to stop its daily violations of our air space.’

‘It is the policy of Lebanon that not a single non-Lebanese soldier should remain on its soil,’ he said. ‘Our disagreement with the UN… is one of timing. And timing is in the hands of the Lebanese and Syrian governments in continuing discussions in light of regional needs, as determined by the two states.’

Damascussparked widespread protest in Lebanon earlier this month with its heavy-handed interference in a parliamentary vote to amend the country’s constitution to allow the pro-Syrian President Lahoud to extend his term in office by three years. Syria’s role in the vote triggered the immediate resignation of four cabinet ministers and could see the rest of the cabinet resign by the end of the month.