“Syria will fulfill its obligations to Lebanon according to the Taif Accord and U.N Security Council Resolution 1559,” said Assad. “Syria will not remain in Lebanon for one more day if a Lebanese consensus demands so, “ he said, but refrained from announcing a specific timetable for the withdrawal.
He said Syria would withdraw from Lebanon in two stages, with the initial stage to be completed in two months, followed by a further retreat to the Lebanese-Syrian border at an undefined later stage.
Assad is set to meet with Lebanese President EmileLahoud on Monday to discuss the withdrawal.
Following the speech, the U.S. State Department criticised Assad's announcement, saying a gradual withdraw of its troops from Lebanon was not enough.
"The international community has made clear that Syria must withdraw completely and immediately all its military forces and intelligence services from Lebanon in accordance with U.N. resolution 1559," said Darla Jordan, spokeswoman for the State Department.
'Lebanese stability is Syria's top priority'
Syria is not against withdrawing its forces from Lebanon, Assad said.
"Syria’s utmost interest is Lebanon’s stability, and due to this reason has maintained its presence in the country," he said.
“We are not against a withdrawal, we started retreating in 2000,” he said, adding that the Syrian forces have already reduced their presence in Lebanon from 43,000 to 14,000 troops. But Syrian officials stressed that any withdrawal must take into consideration Lebanese stability.
“If you think we believe we have to withdraw immediately,“ Assad said directing his speech to the United Nations, “you must take responsibility to ensure Lebanon's stability.” He added that Syria is always ready to cooperate with the U.N. and its decisions.
“However, if resolution 1559 does not consider
Lebanon’s objective conditions, there will be negative repercussions”, he said.
Assad also condemned the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
“The need to reveal who the murderers are is a Syrian need just as it is a Lebanese one,” he said.
‘Ready to renew the peace process’
The key to peace in the region is the return of territories occupied by Israel, Assad said.
“Syria accepts the idea of negotiations without preconditions,” he said, “but the resolutions from the Madrid conference must be implemented.”
However, “without preconditions” does not mean we will ignore certain issues and U.N. decisions, he said.
“The only element holding back a renewed peace process is Israel’s real and serious willingness to renew it,” he said.
Over the past two years the media has smeared Syria’s image, creating a distorted international public opinion, Assad said.
“They have blamed us for sending weapons to Iraq and they have blamed us for trying to sabotage Iraq,” he said. “We have tried to do all we can to preserve Iraq’s stability.”