RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia and Syria have tried to calm tension in Lebanon over any indictments of Hezbollah men in the killing of Lebanese statesman Rafik al-Hariri, but are at odds themselves on the U.N. tribunal mandated to try suspects.
Last week’s joint visit to Beirut by Saudi King Abdullah and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has cooled heated exchanges among Lebanese factions over Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah’s dismissal of the tribunal as an “Israeli project.”
Yet Saudi Arabia and Syria still sponsor rival Lebanese factions -- one facet of a wider tussle for regional influence between the Sunni-ruled kingdom and mainly Shi’ite Iran.
For Riyadh, the Saudi-Syrian trip to Beirut showed that Assad was inching away from his non-Arab ally Iran, perhaps in return for a freer hand in Lebanon, which Syrian troops quit in 2005 after a Lebanese and Western outcry over Hariri’s killing.
But the Saudis have not given Syria a green light to restore its old iron grip on Lebanon, according to Tariq al-Humayed, editor-in-chief of the Saudi-owned Asharq al-Awsat newspaper.
“The Syrian leader arrived aboard the Saudi king’s plane: this sends a strong message to Iran,” he said. “Now it is more important to monitor what Syria does than what it says.”
Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally alarmed by Iran’s growing regional influence since the 2003 Iraq war and Tehran’s links with Syria, Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas group, has tried for two years to persuade Damascus to loosen its alliance with Iran.
“The Saudis and Syrians agree more on Iraq than they do on Lebanon,” said Saudi political writer Khalid al-Dakhil. “Neither wants an Iranian-backed prime minister (in Baghdad). They also don’t want Iran to dominate Iraq, because it will weaken them both.”
Some Arab analysts, such as Mustafa Alani of the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center, detect a subtle change in Syria’s posture.
“The Syrians are moving away from strategic relations with Iran to good relations,” said Alani, adding that Assad’s visit represented another nod toward Lebanese sovereignty.
“The Syrians have always been reluctant to recognize the independence of Lebanon. The Saudis have succeeded so far in putting Syrian policy toward Lebanon on the right track ... by changing a relationship where Syria sees itself as the master.”
Hariri, who once accused the Syrians of involvement in killing his father, has mended fences with Assad, who has thus broadened his range of Lebanese interlocutors. Some analysts argue this dilutes Hezbollah’s favored status in Damascus.
Paul Salem, head of the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East center, said the Assad-Hariri relationship was now strong. “This is worrisome for Hezbollah because they were Syria’s main friend in Lebanon. Now Syria has two main friends at least,” he added.
Syria has diversified its friendships in the region too, developing close ties with economic powerhouse Turkey, a NATO member which is also on good terms with Riyadh and Tehran.
But Assad is still loathe to ditch an alliance with Tehran that has endured for 30 years or to weaken links with Hezbollah, seen as a vital card in Syria’s own struggle with Israel.
In Lebanon, Assad and Abdullah are not in accord on the U.N. tribunal -- which was not mentioned in their joint statement in Beirut, even though it was the reason they went there.
“There is a key point of disagreement, which is about the tribunal. Saudi Arabia says it can’t be avoided,” Humayed said.
Saudi Arabia, along with its allies in Lebanon, notably Hariri’s son Saad, who is now prime minister, support the Hague-based court. Riyadh is among its main budget contributors.
Syria, initially implicated by U.N. investigators of the bombing that killed Hariri, has always viewed the tribunal with suspicion, describing it as politically motivated. Officials say any indictments of Hezbollah “would mean targeting Syria.”
Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has campaigned to discredit the court since disclosing in July that Saad al-Hariri had told him it planned to indict “rogue” Hezbollah members.
Syria and Hezbollah both deny any hand in Hariri’s death or in the subsequent killings of anti-Syrian figures in Lebanon.
Nasrallah has promised to unveil evidence next week to back his accusation that Israel was behind Hariri’s assassination.
Saudi-Syrian mediation may have postponed a political crisis in Lebanon, but it still looms, given that Hariri’s unity government depends on Hezbollah support. A deeper dispute also smolders over Hezbollah’s status as the only group allowed to keep its weapons after the 1975-90 civil war.
Hezbollah says its arsenal is vital to liberate remaining pockets of territory claimed by Lebanon and to defend the country, alongside the army, against any Israeli attack.
The risk that Lebanon might be the trip-wire for a new war in the Middle East swung into focus on Tuesday when the Lebanese army fought a deadly firefight with Israeli troops on the border, the worst violence since the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah war.
Hezbollah stayed out of the fighting, but threatened to respond if the Lebanese army came under any further attack.
It is not yet clear whether Saudi requests to Syria to bring a moderating influence to bear on Hezbollah will bear fruit.
“Saudi Arabia will urge Syria to play that role. If it succeeds to some degree that will strengthen the (Syrian-Saudi) relationship because that would show the Syrians can deliver,” Carnegie’s Salem said. “But they might fail completely.”
Additional reporting and editing by Alistair Lyon in Beirut
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