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Fearful of Iran's influence, Saudi king reaches out to Syria

Saudi Arabia, a close US ally, has switched from a policy of isolation toward engagement. Some hope the warming could bolster US Middle East peace efforts.

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But Syria's ties with the West have been warming of late, thanks to the efforts of President Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and Saudi Arabia has turned from a policy of isolation toward engagement. The Saudi and Syrian leaders met in Riyadh in March. Saudi Arabia restored its ambassador to Syria in August after an 18-month hiatus. And two weeks ago, Abdullah and Mr. Assad met in Jeddah. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the location of the leaders' March meeting.]

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"There is an overall positive momentum in the region which kicked off with the exodus of George W. Bush," says Mr. Moubayed, crediting Obama's regional outreach for the more harmonious atmosphere.

On the two leaders' agenda will be Lebanon, where the Saudi-backed prime minister-designate, Saad Hariri, continues to struggle to form a new government in the face of demands from the Syrian-backed opposition, and the ongoing Palestinian peace talks between the Syrian-backed Hamas movement and Fatah. Analysts say that a Syrian-Saudi accord on these issues would substantially increase chances of resolving them, while serving to strengthen Obama's desire to restart the Middle East peace process.

Washington watching

Washington will be watching closely, says Andrew Tabler from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, hoping the visit will mark the beginning of a new regional balance.

"The Abdullah visit is significant symbolically in that it opens the door for Damascus to move away from an increasingly isolated Iran toward Washington's Arab allies," he says. "All of this will just be a photo shoot, however, if it doesn't lead to progress on key issues, most notably the formation of a government in Lebanon and reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah."

The extent of Syria's influence over Hamas is uncertain, and Syrian analysts caution against expecting too much from the trip.

One Damascus-based commentator, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, says divisions between the two sides remain deep. Moreover, he adds that without Egyptian participation there could be no real regional accord on key issues such as Palestine.

While there has been some talk that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak might join the Damascus summit, Egyptian-Syrian relations are poor, and such an appearance is considered unlikely.

And some Syrian analysts say that warmer relations with Saudi Arabia and the West don't necessarily mean cooler ones with Tehran.

"Yes, the king is here, but the [Syrian] president was in Iran one month ago," says Moubayed. He argues that Iran's opponents should use Syria as gateway to the Iranian state, rather than seeking to break the relationship.

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