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Middle east

Syrian and Saudi leaders on Lebanese visit to avert crisis

Text by Marc DAOU

Latest update : 2010-07-30

The leaders of Lebanon, Syria and Saudi Arabia are seeking to defuse tension over the possible indictment of Hezbollah as they meet in Beirut on Friday for a tripartite summit that marks an important milestone in Syrian-Lebanese relations.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is making his first visit to Lebanon on Friday since 2002 to attend a hastily arranged regional summit with President Michel Sleiman and Saudi King Abdullah. The three leaders are meeting to discuss how to defuse Lebanon’s growing sectarian tensions that are straining the country’s fragile religious balance, raising new fears of instability. Separately, the summit also serves as an important milestone in Lebanese-Syrian relations as it marks the first visit by a Syrian leader since the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.

Relations between the two countries have largely stalled since Hariri was killed, with many Lebanese alleging that Syria, the once dominant power-broker in Lebanon, was responsible. Damascus, for its part, repeatedly denied any involvement in the assassination. In 2008 the two countries established formal diplomatic relations for the first time and now hope to build on those ties.

Hezbollah under fire

Tensions between the Islamic Shiite group and the majority party in parliament led by Hariri have worsened recently as a special tribunal, set up under United Nations auspices, to investigate Hariri’s assassination is widely expected to indict members of Hezbollah for their involvement in the killing. Hezbollah’s influential secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, has warned, though, that he will not accept any indictments from the ‘Special Tribunal for Lebanon’ (TSL). Nasrallah’s challenge to the court, based in The Hague, is a pre-emptive move as the tribunal has yet to hand down any judgment on the case. Nonetheless, Nasrallah asserts that the court is a US and Israeli plot to undermine “the resistance” and sow discord between Lebanon’s Sunni and Shiite populations.

The Hezbollah leader’s warnings and the accompanying fears of a revival of sectarian civil unrest are well-grounded in recent Lebanese history. Just two years ago, in 2008, Sunni supporters of former President Rafiq Hariri battled on the streets of Beirut with heavily armed Shiite Hezbollah militants. Over a hundred people were killed in the fighting as armed conflict, once again, returned to the streets of the Lebanese capital.

Friday’s tripartite summit seeks to leverage the considerable influence that both Syria and Saudi Arabia have in Lebanon’s respective Shiite and Sunni politicians. The Saudi monarch is widely regarded as a protector of Islam’s Sunni branch, while Syria's president, an ally of the pro-Iranian Shiite party Hezbollah, is seen to have considerable influence among Lebanon’s Shiites. Both leaders have pledged to use their positions to try and defuse the emerging crisis. "This historic visit is intended to calm the spirits that are running high after the fiery speeches by Hassan Nasrallah. Without meddling in Lebanon’s affairs, Syrians and Saudis can help to reduce tensions," said Lebanese parliamentarian Ahmad Fatfat, a member of the Future Movement of Saad Hariri, in an interview with France24.com.

Finding balance in Syrian-Lebanese relations

By itself, the arrival of a Syrian head of state in Lebanon is noteworthy. The visit signals a significant warming of relations between the two countries following the acrimony of the past half-decade since the Hariri assassination. The diplomatic landscape is changing very quickly. It was only on Thursday that a Lebanese official confirmed that the Syrian leader would attend the following day’s summit in Beirut. Despite their common border, Syrian leaders rarely make the short trip to Beirut. Bashar al-Assad’s father, and Syria’s former long-time president, visited Lebanon only once in his tenure in 1975.

A Syrian state visit to Lebanon would not have been possible until recently. Resentment among many Lebanese runs deep following Syria’s 29-year (1976-2005) occupation of the country. "The visit of President Assad is a strong political signal that shows [Syria's] respect for Lebanese institutions, and confirms that relations between both countries are being revived on sound footing, respecting everyone's interests," said Ahmad Fatfat.

In contrast, there have been quite a few official visits going the other way. Lebanon’s President Sleiman has traveled to Damascus several times already since his election in May 2008. Even Saad Hariri, despite his conviction of Syria’s involvement in his father’s assassination, has travelled to the Syrian capital on three occasions. "By agreeing to become prime minister, Saad Hariri has put aside his personal feelings on behalf of major economic and strategic interests in Lebanon,” Ahmad Fatfat explained. “Our country must have a stable and sincere relationship with its neighbour Syria," he added.

Fatfat and other observers warn that it is important not to overstate the two countries' improved bilateral ties. While political and economic ties have improved since the establishment of diplomatic relations two years ago, Syria and Lebanon are still seeking to find balance in their relationship. For Lebanon’s prime minister, the tribunal’s findings on the Hariri killing may prove decisive. "The court is sacred in his eyes and, for the moment, nobody in Lebanon knows the contents of the indictment to be issued by this court, " Ahmed Fatfat concluded.

Date created : 2010-07-30

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