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February 24, 2005
Annan To Assad: Get Out (Updated!)

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan issued a remarkably stern and uncompromising message to Syrian dictator Bashar Assad tonight, joining the White House in calling for a complete withdrawal of Syrian troops and intelligence agents from Lebanon. Dismissing Syrian murmurings of returning to the long-dead, phased-withdrawal Taif Accord, Annan demanded that Syria completely retreat by April:

Kofi Annan, the United Nations secretary-general, added his voice yesterday to American calls for Syria to pull out of Lebanon.

He warned the Syrians in an Arabic television interview that they would face "measures" - presumably some form of sanctions - if they did not pull their army out of Lebanon completely by April.

With pressure growing every day, Waleed al-Mualem, the Syrian deputy foreign minister, committed his country to further withdrawals, but failed to make a clear commitment to complete evacuation.

The new demand by Annan, who almost never operates independent of a consensus, comes as a shock to me and I suspect also to Bashar Assad. The UN hardly stands as a bastion of radical change, but the undeniable momentum of popular revolt in Beirut has grown too large to be ignored any longer. The American alliance with France on the Lebanese question must have emboldened the oft-shy Annan into attempting to get in front of history for the first time in his career.

And that is Assad's problem in a nutshell. While the entire world has decried the American occupation of Iraq, we have shown our clear intention on getting the Iraqi people back on their own feet, and quickly. The Syrians have occupied Lebanon under similar rationales but have obviously meant none of it. They blew off the Taif agreement in favor of a long occupation in order to support their proxy terror network, Hezbollah, in continuing operations against their primary enemy Israel.

When you're a dictator, especially one with a seat on the Secuity Council, having Annan square off against you is almost exactly analogous to Barry Goldwater telling Richard Nixon that no one's buying the burglar story. Assad would do well to listen and retire quietly, and quickly, before the next shoe drops.

UPDATE: Don't credit Annan with a spine just yet. According to the AFP, Annan is denying the Telegraph report (hat tip: CQ reader apb):

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan's spokesman denied an Al-Arabiya television report that Annan had demanded a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon by April or sanctions if they do not comply.

"The secretary general never set an April deadline for a withdrawal nor did he support sanctions if the pullout didn't happen by then," spokesman Fred Eckhard said, providing a partial transcript of the network's Annan interview.

In the unofficial transcript of the interview, to be broadcast on Friday, Annan said he would next report to the Security Council by April on Syria's compliance with a council resolution demanding the Syrian withdrawal.

"If it's partial withdrawal, I will have to report. If it's total withdrawal, I will have to report," Annan said, adding that it would be up to the council to impose any sanctions.

"I would urge them to do everything possible to comply so that I can report to the council that they have satisfactorily performed and therefore we wouldn't need to go for additional measures," Annan said.

"But of course, if they do not perform, the council may wish to take additional measures," the UN chief said.

This makes a little more sense, but it may just be a difference without a distinction. After all, Annan has no power to impose sanctions on his own; that would have to come from the UNSC. It isn't certain that the UNSC would act anyway, as Russia wants to sell arms to Syria and would likely veto global sanctions against Assad.

However, Annan definitely wanted to deliver a warning to Assad either way one reads the transcript. Perhaps the warning sharpened a bit too much in the translation, but either way Annan gave the Syrians a deadline (that already existed) and warned them to fully comply in order to avoid diplomatic and economic sanctions. That goes farther than Annan usually dares in public, and while it may not be the blunt Amityville Horror-type message of "Geeeeet ooooouuuut", Annan's thinly-veiled ultimatum via al-Arabiya should still unnerve the Assad regime.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at February 24, 2005 9:33 PM

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