Syrian envoy heads to Moscow for talks on withdrawal from Lebanon

A top Syrian envoy was in Moscow Friday for talks with Russian diplomats on a U.N. resolution urging Syria to pull out of Lebanon. Syria's Deputy Foreign Minister Walid al-Moalim's visit comes after Moscow urged its longtime ally to withdraw 15,000 Syrian troops from Lebanon, adding to the mounting international pressure. Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that the Syrian troops should leave Lebanon in line with September's resolution of the United Nations' Security Council, but added in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp. that the withdrawal must be conducted in such a way that it doesn't break the "fragile balance in Lebanon." Russia's Foreign Ministry said that Lavrov's talks with al-Moalim would focus on the U.N. resolution requiring the Syrian pullout and also touch on the regional situation and bilateral cooperation. Lavrov said that while Russia, a permanent Council member, abstained during the vote on the resolution, it must be implemented. He also voiced hope that forthcoming elections will bring a new Lebanese government that would help stabilize the situation. Syria, which the United States says sponsors international terrorism, is also accused by the Lebanese opposition of being behind the last month's assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri that plunged the nation into political turmoil. Syrian troops entered Lebanon as peacekeepers in 1976 a year after the country's civil war began. But they became involved in the conflict, and when the war ended in 1990, Syria was the undisputed power broker of its western neighbor. In recent years, Syria has withdrawn about 10,000 troops in stages. Several thousand were pulled out after the U.N. resolution. Syria has been a close ally of Moscow since the Soviet era, and the Russian government is negotiating to sell advanced anti-aircraft missiles to Damascus in defiance of the U.S. and Israeli pressure. Syrian President Bashar Assad visited Russia in January. Alexei Malashenko, a Middle East expert with the Carnegie Endowment's Moscow office, said Russia's decision to apply pressure on Syria reflected its wish to play a more significant role in the regional peace process. He said that Damascus would probably listen to Russia, especially since the international community was united in demanding its troops' pullout. "Russia did Syria a favor by agreeing to the missile sale and it is expecting a return gesture," Malashenko told The Associated Press. Leading Russian business daily Kommersant speculated that Russia was concerned that Syria's reluctance to fix a timetable for its troop withdrawal could provoke a U.S. military action. "It seems that Moscow has acknowledged that the likelihood of a military operation against Syria is very high and is trying to persuade its main ally in the Middle East to compromise, if only to protect it from a strike," the newspaper said. Associated Press

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