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With Syria out, Lebanon clout grows

The last Syrian troops left Lebanon Tuesday, ending 29 years of military domination.

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Elite Syrian paratroops in pressed camouflage uniforms and red berets marched alongside their Lebanese counterparts at an old airfield here Tuesday in a colorful farewell ceremony that formally ended Syria's 29-year military presence in Lebanon.

The departure of the last batch of Syrian troops was a historic moment for the Lebanese and underlined just how dramatically and quickly Syria's grip on this tiny Mediterranean country has weakened after 15 years of near-total domination.

With the pro-Syrian establishment in Beirut continuing to unravel by the day, any hope that Damascus might have harbored of retaining some level of influence in Lebanon appears to be fading fast. "The question should be what influence will Lebanon have on Syria," says Michael Young, a Lebanese political analyst.

"Syria was stronger militarily but it was never stronger politically, economically, culturally ... in all the domains Syria imposed its order through force," Mr. Young says. "At this point, to my mind, Lebanon is stronger."

Without the pervasive and sometimes ruthless Syrian military intelligence, known as the mukhabarat, Damascus lacks the means of maintaining its tight control over Lebanon's vibrant politics and economy.

Some of Syria's ruling political and military elite amassed fortunes in Lebanon, muscling in on business deals with Lebanese partners and raking off profits from numerous ventures such as cellular telephone networks and casinos. Syrian laborers, too, relied on Lebanon for work, their remittances providing a welcome boost to Syria's cash-starved economy.

But the era of easy pickings for the Syrians appears to be over. Syria's one-time loyal allies in Lebanon are turning their backs on their former masters in Damascus, playing to the new mood of independence to ensure political survival.

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