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Syrian, Saudi leaders visit Lebanon

Ex-foes display unity on trip to avert violence

Syrian President Bashar Assad (right) and Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdel Aziz arrived at Beirut’s Rafik Hariri International Airport. Syrian President Bashar Assad (right) and Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdel Aziz arrived at Beirut’s Rafik Hariri International Airport. (Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images)
By Elizabeth A. Kennedy
Associated Press / July 31, 2010

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BEIRUT — The leaders of Syria and Saudi Arabia, once bitter rivals, made an unprecedented show of cooperation yesterday, traveling together to Lebanon in hopes of preventing any violence if members of a militant group are indicted in the 2005 assassination of a former Lebanese prime minister.

The unusual joint visit by President Bashar Assad of Syria and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia underscored the depth of Arab concern over potential chaos in Lebanon. Many people fear that indictments of Hezbollah members could spark clashes between Lebanon’s Sunnis and Shi’ites, or that Hezbollah’s nemesis Israel could be pulled into a conflict, causing wider turmoil.

The summit also consecrated both countries’ roles as power brokers in the region, where Syria is an ally of Iran and Saudi Arabia generally supports the United States.

Washington has long tried to uproot Syrian influence in Lebanon, but Damascus and Riyadh seem to have a fragile understanding, suggesting that both see a greater interest in keeping Lebanon quiet after years of feuding over it.

“This is significant for two leaders who were fighting it out in Beirut just a few years ago,’’ said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. “This indicates that they think this crisis is so big that they have to come themselves.’’

The king and Assad walked side by side down the staircase from a Saudi jet at Beirut’s airport and entered talks with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, President Michel Suleiman and other officials. The leader of Hezbollah did not take part, but Hezbollah Cabinet ministers were on hand.

It was Assad’s first visit to Lebanon in eight years. The highway from Beirut’s airport into the city was lined with Syrian and Saudi flags, as well as banners with Assad’s picture that proclaimed “Welcome among your family.’’ Those words were a stark contrast to the bitterness many Lebanese vented at Syria when it was forced to withdraw its military in 2005, ending a nearly three-decade hold.

Few details about the discussions emerged. After the meeting, Lebanon, Syria, and Saudi Arabia issued a joint statement that urged all parties to put Lebanon’s interests above all else and refrain from violence.

“Solidarity is a necessity, and standing side by side to confront challenges facing the Arab world,’’ they said.

The crisis centers on the international tribunal investigating the assassination of Hariri’s father, former prime minister Rafik Hariri, in a Valentine’s Day truck bombing in 2005. Indictments are expected this year.

The Netherlands-based tribunal has not said who will be charged, but the leader of Hezbollah said last week that he already knows that Hezbollah members will be among them. That could spark riots between the Sunni supporters of Hariri and Shi’ites who largely back Hezbollah.

The two sides have clashed before in their power struggle. In May 2008, Hezbollah gunmen swept through Sunni progovernment neighborhoods of Beirut, raising the threat of a new civil war. The crisis was resolved only after Arab countries mediated a truce and political compromise between the two sides that has tenuously held since.

Many in Lebanon blame Syria for Rafik Hariri’s death, charges that Damascus denies. The killing sparked massive anti-Syrian protests in Lebanon, dubbed the Cedar Revolution, which led to the Syrian withdrawal.

The assassination also deepened a rift between Syria and Saudi Arabia, which each backed rival sides in the ensuing power struggle that nearly tore Lebanon apart: Syria backing a Hezbollah-led coalition, and Saudi Arabia and the United States supporting Saad Hariri’s Sunni-led coalition.

In recent years, however, Assad and Abdullah have repaired ties and the joint visit was a sign of how much the rift has healed.

In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the United States hoped that yesterday’s meeting would produce “a recommitment to Lebanese sovereignty’’ and “an understanding to try to restrain those elements within Lebanon who have precipitated conflict in the past.’’

Assad rarely goes to Beirut. His last visit in 2002 was the first by a Syrian leader to the Lebanese capital in nearly three decades. Abdullah also was last in Lebanon in 2002, when he was crown prince.

Hezbollah spokesman Ibrahim Moussawi said the group welcomed the summit.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s July 22 announcement that he expected members of his movement to be indicted appeared to be an attempt to soften the impact of any charges.

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