(Reuters) - King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia began his first visit to Syria as head of state on Wednesday, in a further sign of improvement in a prickly relationship.
Following are some of the issues that have divided Syria and Saudi Arabia over the past five years:
Lebanon has been the main arena for Syrian-Saudi rivalry and the most obvious beneficiary of this year’s rapprochement. The two countries fell out badly over the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri, who was seen as a symbol of Saudi influence. Hariri’s allies accused Damascus of orchestrating the killing and Riyadh swung behind calls by Western states for Syria to end its 29-year military presence in Lebanon. Syria has always denied any role in the assassination. The political struggle unleashed by the Hariri killing pitted Lebanese factions allied to Syria, including the powerful Shi’ite group Hezbollah, against others backed by Saudi Arabia and the United States. The crisis eventually spilled into armed conflict and was only defused with the cooperation of Riyadh and Damascus. Better Syrian-Saudi ties are widely credited with keeping Lebanon stable for the past year and allowing a smooth parliamentary election in June. But the Lebanese are still awaiting the formation of a new government and hope the Damascus summit will nudge their own rival politicians to strike a deal.
Syria’s support for Hezbollah and the Palestinian group Hamas, which oppose U.S. policy on the Arab-Israeli conflict, puts it at odds with close U.S. allies Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Syrian-Saudi ties hit rock bottom in 2006 after a 34-day war between Hezbollah and Israel, which still occupies Syrian land captured in the 1967 Middle East war. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad derided Arab leaders as “half men” in remarks taken as a direct attack on King Abdullah and other rulers who had criticized Hezbollah’s role in igniting the conflict.
The dissonance of Syrian and Saudi approaches to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was laid bare during Israel’s Gaza offensive earlier this year. Syria, which hosts Hamas’s exiled leader Khaled Meshaal, attended an emergency meeting of Arab leaders in Qatar that was snubbed by Saudi Arabia.
Riyadh also held Damascus at least partly responsible for the collapse of a Palestinian unity agreement between Hamas and the rival Fatah faction in Mecca in 2007. The deal unravelled when Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in June of that year.
Syria’s alliance with Iran irritates the Sunni monarchy in Saudi Arabia, which worries about the Shi’ite Islamist republic’s growing regional influence. Iran, like Syria, supports Hezbollah and Hamas. Saudi Arabia’s concerns about Iranian power have grown since the United States led an invasion to topple Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in 2003, allowing Shi’ite groups with close links to Tehran to gain sway in Baghdad.
Saudi Arabia’s links with the United States put the kingdom at the heart of what Washington views as a “moderate” group of Arab states. Syria, by contrast, remains under U.S. sanctions for a range of alleged misdeeds, including undermining efforts to stabilize Iraq. President Barack Obama’s administration has begun talking to Syria this year, reversing George W. Bush’s efforts to isolate it. However, Obama has also extended sanctions on Damascus.
Writing by Tom Perry in Beirut, editing by Alistair Lyon