Syrian President Bashar al-Asad's promise to eventually carry out a complete withdrawal of his forces from Lebanon has brought the relevance of the 1989 Taif Accord into bold relief.
The pact, named after the Saudi resort town of Taif, where the accord was conceived as a means to end the 15-year old Lebanese civil war, was seen as the first positive step towards achieving a national reconciliation among the warring ethnic groups of Muslims, Christians and Druze.
The civil war that broke out in 1975 and ended in 1990, after taking a toll of more than 100,000 lives and as many injured, had reduced what was once the beacon of democracy and economic stability in the Arab world into an implosive anarchy.
While the country witnessed some residual violence even after the agreement was ratified by the Lebanese parliament on 4 November 1989, it did bring some semblance of order and political stability to the ravaged country.
Far from goals
Over the past 16 years, since signing the Taif Accord, Lebanon has seen a resurgence of its economy and has re-established its credentials as a democratic polity.
It has made progress towards rebuilding its political institutions and regaining its national sovereignty. The agreement also has helped the country establish a more equitable political system, particularly by giving Muslims a greater say in the political process.
Democratic elections have been held periodically, most of the militias have either been neutralised or disbanded and the Lebanese armed forces have extended the federal authority to most parts of the country.
The Taif agreement's main agenda largely has been fulfilled. But Lebanon is still far from the sovereign state envisaged in 1989.
This is where the presence of more than 14,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon comes into question. While the official Lebanon justifies the presence of the Syrian troops as integral to the survival of the Lebanese state, the United Nations and the Western world, as also the political opposition in Lebanon, point out that Syria, as the major power-broker for Lebanon, is overstaying in the country using the Taif accord as an excuse.
A Syrian soldier in the back of an
army truck returns from Lebanon
But the Syrian presence in Lebanon, invited by the government in Beirut at the outbreak of the civil war, was legitimised by the Taif agreement and supported by the Arab League, and the agreement also committed Syria to ensure Lebanon's national security before it could pull out its troops. Such a pullout can only be undertaken after both Syria and Lebanon are satisfied that Lebanon is safe from another round of civil war or foreign aggression, particularly by Israel.
Although Israel completed its withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000, in accordance with the UN Security Council Resolution 425, a 50sq km piece of disputed mountain terrain, commonly known as Shebaa Farms, remains under Israeli control, stoking Lebanese fears of another invasion.
The presence of the Hizb Allah militia, the only armed group that refused to disband as part of the Taif agreement, in Lebanon is perceived by Israel as a constant threat to its own security, which, in turn, poses a constant threat to Lebanon's security, thus justifying the Syrian presence in the country.
However, the assassination of the former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri on 14 February has again stoked the western suspicion that Syria might be working on a secret agenda to foment fresh violence in Lebanon as a means to perpetuate its presence in the country.
At the heart of the issue is the question of whether the Arab League-brokered Taif agreement should take precedence over UN Resolution 1559, which the Security Council passed in October.
While the UN, the US and its allies argue that the resolution overwrites the Taif accord and should be implemented, Syria and Lebanon officially maintain that they have to abide by the older agreement in the interest of Lebanon's integrity. Any suggestion that Syria withdraw its troops from Lebanon would be detrimental to Lebanon's security, both countries argue.
All that Syria had been willing to undertake was redeployment of its troops.
But this time around, the UN and the US are resolved to see that Syria is not allowed to get away with what they see as a "cosmetic" redeployment. The assassination of al-Hariri has bolstered the international pressure on Syria to leave Lebanon.