Saudi king's Syria visit feeds hopes

This week's visit to Syria by Saudi King Abdullah marks a potential reconciliation between the two rivals after years of bitter relations.

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BEIRUT // This week's visit to Syria by Saudi King Abdullah marks a potential reconciliation between the two rivals after years of bitter relations that have hurt efforts by Lebanon's political elites to find consensus on a national unity government.

With both Saudi Arabia and Syria maintaining extensive influence over Lebanon's political majority and opposition, many political figures and observers in Beirut and around the region describe the meeting as a critical opportunity to not only resolve Lebanon's years-long political impasse, but also push Syria back into the community of Arab nations and further away from its longtime ally Iran. "It's a pretty big deal," said the Syria expert Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "A good outcome in these talks could quickly facilitate a Lebanese government."

"The visit confirms a shift in Middle East politics," said Paul Salem, an analyst with the Carnegie Middle East Centre. "It is very significant and important that Syria has definitely shifted more towards the middle compared to the old days, where it was closely aligned with Iran." In recent weeks, Syria has embarked on a programme to rehabilitate its image in the Arab world and internationally by improving relations with Saudi Arabia, the United States, Europe and Turkey through a series of meetings, statements and even small concessions.

"These efforts are capped by a high-level graduation ceremony," Mr Salem said. "For the king to come not just for a meeting but for a three-day visit is a major step in calming relations." The relations between the two Arab powers first cracked in 2004, when Saudi Arabia supported the efforts of the United States, France and Rafiq Hariri, who was the Lebanese prime minister at the time, to pass United Nations Resolution 1559, which called for the disarming of Hizbollah, and get Syria to end its multi-decade occupation of its neighbour. But these chilly ties shattered after the 2005 car bomb assassination of Hariri, who had close ties to the Saudi royal family, in an attack that was widely blamed on Syria.

After that rupture both countries used proxies, with Saudi Arabia supporting Hariri's son and political heir Saad and Syria promoting the mostly Shiite opposition led by Hizbollah. After the war between Israel and Hizbollah in July 2006, relations between the Sunni and Shiite political establishments turned even more bitter and violent with street clashes between rival gangs and parties continuing until Hizbollah violently took over West Beirut in May 2008. Lebanon has been calm in the ensuing 18 months since that clash. June elections were held with a minimum of disruption and resulted in a victory of Mr Hariri's alliance with the help of major Saudi campaign donations. The ensuing four months have seen the process stuck over small political issues, however.

With both patrons discussing regional issues for the first time in years, there is some guarded optimism that the groups they support locally will find room to compromise on issues, including the allocation of various cabinet ministries. "At the levels of meetings here in Beirut, the mood has been pretty good," Mr Salem said. "But they are just now getting down to brass tacks and with the meetings in Syria, there's a sense of hopefulness."

Adding to the optimism is a meeting between Mr Hariri and the opposition Christian leader, Michel Aoun, yesterday in Beirut. Mr Hariri's first attempt to build a unity cabinet failed after he could not agree with Mr Aoun on who would control the lucrative telecommunications ministry. Mr Aoun favoured his son-in-law, Gibran Bassil, to continue in the post, a demand Mr Hariri refused, citing his role as prime minister-designate and the right to name his own cabinet.

After yesterday's meeting, Mr Aoun told reporters that the two men found some issues of agreement and that he expected a cabinet would form fairly soon. "It is like putting together a puzzle. Only when it is done will you see it as a whole," Mr Aoun said. Mohammed Raad, a Hizbollah member of parliament, confirmed that he expected talks on ministries in the coming days but another Hizbollah official warned that internal problems in Mr Hariri's March 14 alliance could scuttle the progress.

"There is a consensus on the 15-10-5 formula as we look forward to eliminate a few complications; nevertheless, some March 14 officials do not want a partnership cabinet," the Hizbollah deputy, Naim Qassem, said on Sunday. Mr Qassem was referring to several March 14 allies in Lebanon's Christian community who have criticised Mr Hariri's adherence to a compromise that would give the majority 15 seats, the opposition 10 seats and leave five seats to a neutral presidential bloc, effectively protecting the minority's right to veto major initiatives. Several parties have complained that Mr Hariri gave up too much to earn the co-operation of the opposition and still does not have a cabinet to show for the compromise.