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.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
Hariri could face impossible choice
Mr. Hariri has consistently supported the international investigation into his father’s murder since its inception five years ago. But if indictments are issued against members of Hezbollah, it will place him in an impossible position.
“The government is already under pressure and it will face even more pressure to change direction on the tribunal,” says Salem of the Carnegie Middle East Center.
If Hariri distances himself from the tribunal and accepts Hezbollah’s argument that the investigation is flawed and politicized, it will make a mockery of the judicial process and cast into doubt the tribunal’s future. Lebanon could end its obligation to pay 49 percent of the costs of the tribunal, the remainder of which comes from donor states.
On the other hand, if Hariri accepts the tribunal’s indictments, it would place him on a collision course with Hezbollah and risk the collapse of his coalition government and the outbreak of renewed Sunni-Shiite strife after two years of relative domestic calm.
Mindful of the fears surrounding the tribunal, Hariri repeatedly has attempted to assuage concerns of violent repercussions.