Middle East

Historic Saudi-Syrian Beirut visit shows Arab concern

King Abdullah shakes hands with Bashar al-Assad in front of Michel Suleiman (30 July 2010) Image copyright AP
Image caption The Saudi, Lebanese and Syrian leaders stressed the need for restraint

It was mightily short on public statements and lasted only a few short hours, but the unprecedented joint visit to Lebanon by two of the most influential Arab leaders produced images that few would have thought possible just a couple of years ago.

At that time, Syria's militant Shia ally, Hezbollah, were battling through West Beirut, destroying the offices and media outlets of the Saudi-backed Sunni leader, Saad Hariri, the son and political heir of the assassinated former prime minister, Rafik Hariri.

The Saudi ambassador left in a huff, enraged by this muscular show of strength which implied, among other things, a forceful return of Syrian influence.

Ties between Damascus and Riyadh hit an all-time low.

But now, here were the Saudi king and the Syrian president arriving in Beirut on the same aircraft to deliver the same message to the Lebanese - nothing must be allowed to trigger the kind of sectarian strife that took the country to the brink of civil war in May 2008.

It must have been a nightmare for the protocol personnel at the Lebanese presidential palace in Baabda, on the pine-clad slopes overlooking the capital.

While King Abdullah's visit - the first by a reigning Saudi monarch since 1957 - had been scheduled for some time, President Bashar al-Assad's inclusion was confirmed only a day ahead.

That meant hundreds of Syrian flags had to be hurriedly prepared and put out along the main routes.

Invitations to a lavish banquet in honour of the two men had to be hastily reprinted to add in the Syrian president's name.

Risk of war

The reason for all the rush and improvisation was the sense of urgency and crisis apparently shared by the Saudi and Syrian leaders, fearing that Lebanon might be on the brink of another explosion, this time triggered by the international tribunal set up to investigate Hariri's assassination in 2005.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Hezbollah reacted angrily to rumours that its members would be indicted

The rising tempo of hostile reaction by the Hezbollah leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, to the much-rumoured possibility that the tribunal might indict some of his followers, raised fears of a Sunni-Shia sectarian outburst, or even that Hezbollah might trigger another war with Israel, as happened in 2006.

Saudi Arabia and Syria apparently want neither eventuality.

King Abdullah is eager to solidify Arab ranks at what he sees is a fateful moment for the region, poised between possible peace talks with Israel and a possible war between Israel on one side, and Iran, Syria and Hezbollah on the other.

It would be hard for Damascus to stay out of such a war.

It has a long-standing strategic alliance with Iran, whose maverick President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad predicted recently that Israel would wage war against two regional states in the coming months - by implication, Lebanon and Syria.

National interest

So it was not surprising that the closing statement on the talks from the Lebanese presidency made no mention of the international tribunal, but stressed instead the need for all to rise above factional considerations and put the national interest first.

"Indeed, the issue of the tribunal seems in a way to have been secondary to the support of stability, to the role of the state, with Saudi Arabia and Syria working together to prevent any sectarian flare-ups," said Bassim Shab, a Christian deputy from Mr Hariri's Future Movement, who attended the summit banquet.

Mr Shab and others were impressed by the emergence of the Syrian president in an unfamiliar role as a source of support for the Lebanese state and institutions.

"There was widespread approval of this, even by people who in the past were very anti-Syrian, as though they welcome in a way this new-found stability and this support for the state of Lebanon, even by Syria," he added.

Ziad Haidar, diplomatic editor of the Syrian newspaper, al-Watan, summed up the meeting's objectives as seen by Damascus.

"If the tribunal or anything else should affect Lebanon's domestic stability, the interest of a stable Lebanon should be put as a priority before anything else. I think this is the message the Syrians and the Saudis are trying to give in this summit."

Delicate balance

The closing statement said the Saudi, Syrian and Lebanese leaders stressed the need for continued dialogue and "commitment to refraining from resort to force, putting Lebanon's higher interest over any factional concern, and abiding by legitimacy, the constitutional institutions, and the national unity government to resolve differences".

Image copyright AP
Image caption Sectarian strife that took Lebanon to the brink of civil war in May 2008

Some observers, perhaps with wishful thinking, saw this as a signal from the Syrians that Hezbollah's role as a loose cannon on Syria's foredeck might meet with decreasing indulgence from Damascus, despite its alliance with Hezbollah's real sponsors, Iran.

But Syria has for decades carried out a delicate balancing-act between its alliance with Tehran - born of mutual hostility to Iraq under Saddam Hussein - and its other relationships, including sporadic engagement in peace manoeuvres with Israel and a tentative thaw in relations with Washington.

A visit to Lebanon by Iran's president has been on the cards for some time, but has apparently been put off until after the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan in September.

If it goes ahead, it will be interesting to see what coded messages come out of the trip.

Regional questions

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The Saudi and Syrian leaders wield huge influence in Lebanon

Even sooner, the next few speeches by Hezbollah's leader may give an indication as to whether the temperature has cooled as a result of the tripartite summit.

In the meantime, the message about the need for restraint and commitment to Lebanon's stability and the higher national interest has been filtering down.

While President Assad held a long meeting with the Lebanese parliamentary speaker and Hezbollah ally, Nabih Berri of the Amal movement, his foreign minister briefed a delegation from Hezbollah itself.

King Abdullah meanwhile paid a visit to the house of Prime Minister Hariri, to meet pillars of the Sunni religious and political community.

The Saudi and Syrian leaders undoubtedly wield huge influence with their respective allies in Lebanon.

But question-marks remain over how much sympathy they can expect for their efforts from those three other significant players - Iran, Israel and the United States.

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