Saudi-Syrian relations thaw as Assad calls on the king

Impasse in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and Hamas-Fatah reconciliation expected to feature prominently in talks between two countries' heads.

RIYADH // Continuing their bilateral thaw, the Syrian president, Bashar Assad, and Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz held talks here last night on a variety of regional issues. Speaking at a news conference hours before Mr Assad's scheduled arrival late yesterday, Prince Saud al Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, said the Syrian leader's stopover "is a reciprocal visit" following King Abdullah's trip to Damascus in October.

The monarch's trip broke a lengthy freeze in Syrian-Saudi relations that began with the 2005 assassination of then-Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri, a close friend of the Saudi king. Deeply upset and angry, King Abdullah was said to have held Mr Assad responsible for the massive bombing that killed Hariri. Prince Saud, who stopped in Damascus last week to prepare for the bilateral meeting, did not disclose what the two leaders would discuss today. But it is likely that the current impasse in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, as well as a Hamas-Fatah reconciliation will be top priorities.

The enmity between the two Palestinian factions is hindering efforts to restart peace negotiations with Israel. Syria and its ally, Iran, have close relations to Hamas, while Egypt and Saudi Arabia favour the Fatah movement. In a development most likely linked to discussions, the Hamas political leader, Khaled Meshaall, made a rare visit here this month from his home in Damascus. As always, the Saudis will also be keen to see how much daylight Mr Assad is willing to put between his country and Iran. The Saudis regard Syria's relations with the Shiite country as a prime reason why Iran has been able to project its power and influence into the Arab, mostly Sunni, world in recent years.

Iran works closely with Hizbollah in Lebanon, Shiite factions in Iraq, and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. It has also been accused of fomenting the Houthi rebellion in Yemen, which has spilled over into Saudi Arabia in recent months. The Saudis do not expect Syria to break completely with Iran, but they want to see it give more priority to Arab affairs, observers say. The two leaders will confer tonight in Riyadh and then Mr Assad will travel to Jeddah for a two-day personal visit during which he will perform Umrah in Mecca.

Mr Assad's visit comes as US and European officials are working behind the scenes to rescue the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. On Tuesday evening, the White House national security adviser, James Jones, held talks with King Abdullah in Riyadh as part of a brief Middle East tour that will also take Mr Jones to Israel and the Israeli-occupied West Bank. George Mitchell, the US special envoy to the Middle East, is in Europe.

Prince Saud spoke during a news conference with the visiting Chinese foreign minister, Yang Jiechi. In their talks, the two men discussed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iran's perceived pursuit of nuclear weapons, Iraq's internal stability and several other interests of mutual concern, "including reform of the UN Security Council", the Saudi foreign minister said. Mr Yang, who noted that this was "the 20th anniversary of relations between Saudi Arabia and China", said his government believed that "the Iranian nuclear file should be solved through peaceful diplomatic negotiations".

China will be among the six major powers set to meet next weekend in New York to discuss what to do in response to Iran's refusal to comply with United Nations' demands that it cease its nuclear enrichment programme. China, which depends on Iran for much of its energy needs, opposes tighter sanctions on Iran, a course that Washington and several other countries are expected to propose at the meeting.