Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Officials in Beirut are cautiously welcoming a Syrian troop redeployment from Lebanon, but analysts said the move was designed to help improve Damascus' image abroad, rather than give the Lebanese their freedom.
Syria ferried tanks out of Lebanon early Friday, following an earlier withdrawal of Syrian troops from Beirut and other areas. Syria has some 35,000 troops in Lebanon, and it did not specify how many were removed.
The pro-Damascus Lebanese government praised the withdrawal of troops from mostly Christian areas, the apparent result of months of protest from that community over the continued Syrian presence in Lebanon.
"This move ... confirms the depth of Syrian-Lebanese relations," said Information Minister Ghazi al-Aridi in a cabinet statement in Beirut. He thanked Syria for helping Lebanon "consolidate its security and stability."
"Syria has begun a long-awaited redeployment of its troops from Beirut and Mount Lebanon, extending an olive branch to the widening circle of those opposing its tight political and military grip on the country," Beirut's English language Daily Star wrote on Friday.
Maronite Christian leader, Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, who has spearheaded an international campaign aimed at ending a 15-year Syrian presence in Lebanon, was said to have expressed his relief at the Syrian pullback but cautioned that "there is a still a long way to go before there are balanced ties."
However, another Christian Maronite leader, Michel Aoun, who is in exile, called the move "cosmetic" and said it was only "aimed at absorbing the anger against the Syrian presence."
Israeli analysts also expressed their doubts that the move had any real significance.
Tel Aviv University Prof. Eyal Zisser said the process had begun before the death of the late Syrian President Hafez Assad a year ago.
The Syrians want political control in Lebanon, and the continuing military presence is a liability at this time, he said.
"This is why they're [withdrawing] in front of the cameras. But it's not real."
Syrian expert Dr. Yossi Olmert said pressure on the Syrians to withdraw had doubled since Israel unilaterally withdrew its troops from a buffer zone in southern Lebanon a year ago.
Israel's withdrawal took away Syria's last excuse for maintaining a presence there, he said, adding that Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri had been cautiously pressuring Syria to pull out its troops.
Hariri's number one priority is to revamp the country's languishing economy, which many analysts say is not possible as long as Syria remains.
Even if the move is considered cosmetic, it could backfire, however. Olmert said the dynamic of redeploying some troops creates an expectation for more to be withdrawn. Zisser said the withdrawal of troops of under pressure was seen ultimately as a sign of weakness.
Olmert said the Syrians were also afraid that the Iranian-backed militia, Hizballah, will launch attacks against Israel and thereby draw Syria into a confrontation.
Israel holds Syria responsible for Hizballah actions because Syria used the Lebanese group for years to attack Israel by proxy.
Hizballah waged an 18-year guerrilla and terrorist war against Israel and its ally the South Lebanese Army. After Israel withdrew, it moved to fill the vacuum in southern Lebanon.
The militant Islamic group has continued to threaten and mount cross-border attacks over a still-disputed area, which the U.N. has made clear Israel was not expected to vacate.
Olmert said Syria would soon become a non-permanent member of the U.N. Security Council and was trying to present a face of "civilized diplomacy." It is under international pressure to restrain Hizballah and it is trying to improve its image.
Syria entered Lebanon in the 1970's as a result of the country's civil war, and was given a mandate to intervene there by the Arab League in 1976, several months after it had already occupied the country.
The mandate was cancelled in 1982 but Syria remained. Its presence there was strengthened in 1990, analysts say, when the U.S. turned a blind eye to increasing Syrian control in exchange for Syria's backing of the Western coalition against Iraq in the Gulf War.