Rare Arab summit to forestall possible Hezbollah unrest in Lebanon
An Arab summit of the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Syria met in Beirut today for the first time in eight years amid rising concern that the Hariri assassination tribunal could indict key Hezbollah members – sparking Hezbollah unrest.
The leaders of Saudi Arabia and Syria arrived in Beirut Friday for an unprecedented summit with Lebanese President Michel Suleiman. The visit comes amid rising regional concern over the potentially explosive findings of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.Skip to next paragraph
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The powerful Shiite militia has denied any involvement in the assassination. But if indictments are issued in the coming months as is widely expected, it will cause at the very least a major political crisis. Worse, it could spark outbursts of sectarian violence, analysts say.
“The rapid rush of kings and presidents to Lebanon confirms that this is a very serious development,” says Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Center in Beirut. “The scenario that Hezbollah is implicated is the worst-case scenario. It raises problems at every level.”
Strategizing about how to contain potential fallout
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad arrived separately in Beirut early Friday afternoon and headed to the Baabda presidential palace in the hills overlooking Beirut for a meeting with Mr. Suleiman. It was the first time either of them have visited since an Arab League summit in 2002, underlining the level of unease in the region at the potential fallout over the tribunal’s findings.
Mr. Assad, who together with Mr. Abdullah was expected to help Lebanon strategize over how to contain the likely fallout, was quoted as describing the summit and side meetings with senior Lebanese officials as "excellent."
A final communiqué called on all Lebanese not to resort to violence in settling their differences and declared that Lebanon's well-being should come above partisan interests.
Mending Saudi-Syria rift
Rafik Hariri was a Saudi protégé and his murder in 2005 fueled a bitter split between Saudi Arabia and Syria – a new cold war whose fault line ran through Lebanon. Syria was widely blamed for the killing although it has always denied involvement.
The Saudi-Syrian rift was further aggravated by their differing stances toward Iran. Syria and Iran have been close allies for three decades while Saudi Arabia leads Arab opposition to Iran’s growing influence in the region. The rivalry was played out in Beirut where the Saudis and Syrians backed opposing political factions.
However, Saudi Arabia patched up its differences with Syria last year, hoping to woo Damascus away from Tehran and back into the Arab fold. The Syrians so far have refused to sever ties with Iran but nonetheless appear anxious to maintain good relations with their Arab neighbors and to roll back some Iranian influence in Lebanon.
The improved ties between Saudi Arabia and Syria were reflected in Lebanon with a gradual easing of tensions between rival factions. Saad Hariri, the Saudi-backed prime minister and son of Rafik, has visited Damascus three times since December, most recently last week at the head of a large ministerial delegation.
“Both Syria and Saudi Arabia have an interest in curbing Iran’s sway over Hezbollah, and ensuring Hariri’s political survival, now that the latter has mended fences with Damascus,” says Elias Muhanna, a Lebanese political analyst and author of the Lebanese affairs blog Qifa Nabki.