Less than a month after Israel announced the completion of its military involvement in Lebanon, Syria has quietly withdrawn about one-quarter of its military forces from Lebanon, diplomatic sources said Wednesday.
The sources said that the withdrawal, which began about 10 days ago, is continuing, although there are indications that it is nearly complete.
The sources, who requested anonymity, estimated that between 10,000 and 12,000 Syrian soldiers have been pulled out of Lebanon, mostly from the Bekaa Valley area in the eastern part of the country.
Heavy Vehicles Withdrawn
The withdrawals are believed to have primarily affected two brigades of a Syrian armored division, with several hundred heavy vehicles part of the pullout.
As recently as one month ago, most estimates placed Syrian troop strength in Lebanon at about 40,000 men.
In the current pullbacks, the Syrians appear to be leaving in place some of their special forces units that are stationed north and east of Beirut, according to the sources. Those units also have Soviet-supplied armor, but on a much smaller scale than the units that have been withdrawn.
Last month, Israel announced that it had completed withdrawing its forces from Lebanon, almost exactly three years after they invaded the country.
The Israelis also disclosed, however, that they were leaving behind several hundred advisers to assist the South Lebanon Army, a primarily Christian militia that is trained and financed by Israel, to maintain control over a "security belt" near Israel's northern frontier.
Diplomats in Damascus are divided about whether the Syrian withdrawals are intended as a response to the Israeli pullback.
Diplomats Assess Move
"I think it's intended to send the signal to the Israelis that the Syrians are interested in cooperation over Lebanon, particularly southern Lebanon," one Western diplomat said. "After all, Israel is calling for a truce with the Shia Muslims, and Syria supports the Shias."
But another diplomat disagreed, saying, "I don't think the Syrian assessment of the threat from Israel has changed."
According to the diplomat, the Syrians may believe that the troops have been in Lebanon for so long that discipline and training have deteriorated badly.
Maintaining an army of occupation in Lebanon has also proved vastly expensive to Syria, which now spends about half of its annual budget for military purposes.
The Israeli withdrawal may have convinced the Syrian command that it no longer needs such a large armored force in an area where Syrian forces once confronted Israeli troops.
Before the pullout started, the Syrians regularly sent in fresh troops to relieve forces that had been in the field. But there has been no indication of fresh troops returning to Lebanon recently.
Unrelated to Hijacking
"If this is merely a recycling of troops, it's on a much larger scale than ever before," one diplomat said.
There was a general consensus among the diplomatic sources that the pullback was unrelated to any bargaining that may have taken place between Syria, the United States and Israel over the hijacking of TWA Flight 847.
A month ago, there was much speculation that Syria was about to send troops into Beirut to help restore calm there after clashes between such groups as the Shia Muslims' Amal militia and the Palestinians and also between Christians and Muslims.
Lebanese President Amin Gemayel even announced after a visit to Damascus that it was likely that Syrian troops would form mixed security patrols with Lebanese army regulars as a way of restoring order to the strife-torn country.
stop Syrian troops were dispatched to Lebanon in 1976 as part of an Arab League peacekeeping force to maintain order at the close of the Lebanese civil war.
The withdrawal of Syrian forces had been sought by both Israel and the United States as the Israeli troops pulled back from southern Lebanon.
But Syria, which forced Lebanon to abandon its troop withdrawal agreement with Israel, has refused to discuss the movement of its forces in connection with the Israelis because, the Syrians believe, they are in Lebanon at the legitimate request of the Lebanese government.