October 8, 2009 / 3:27 PM / 10 years ago

Saudi Arabia and Syria urge unity government in Lebanon

DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Syria and Saudi Arabia urged the formation of a national unity government in Lebanon on Thursday after a summit between President Bashar al-Assad and King Abdullah, the official Syrian news agency said.

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad (R) shakes hands with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in Damascus October 7, 2009. REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri

Syria and Saudi Arabia back rival political players in Lebanon and an understanding between them is seen as crucial for the formation of a new government in Beirut.

“The importance of reaching consensus in Lebanon was affirmed, and finding points of agreement through the formation of a national unity government as basis for the stability of Lebanon,” the news agency said.

It did not provide further details of what was said about Lebanon during the talks, which were cloaked in secrecy.

Saudi Arabia’s relations with Damascus deteriorated after the 2005 assassination of Rafik al-Hariri, a Lebanese parliamentarian and former premier, who had close ties to Saudi Arabia.

A United Nations investigation has implicated Syrian security officials in the killing but Syria denies any role.

The Saudi monarch left on Thursday after a two-day visit, the first since becoming king. The news agency said the two leaders also discussed Iraq and the “tragic situation in the occupied Palestinian territories.”

Saad al-Hariri, a Saudi- and U.S.-backed Lebanese political leader and son of the assassinated premier, has been trying to form a new government since an alliance led by him won parliamentary elections in June.

He has not managed to resolve disagreements with an opposition that includes Iranian and Syrian-backed Shi’ite Hezbollah.

When Hariri was initially designated prime minister he openly stated his aim to form a unity government but has been less specific about the nature of his cabinet.

Hezbollah and its allies have called on him to form a unity government and respect a seat-sharing arrangement agreed during his first attempt at forming the cabinet.

Jamal Khashoggi, editor of the Saudi Al-Watan newspaper, said Lebanon was no longer a main point of tension between Syria and Saudi Arabia.

“I think any delay in the formation of a Lebanese government now will be due to internal Lebanese differences,” said Khashoggi, who was among the official Saudi delegation in the Syrian capital.

He said there was a limit to what a detente between Saudi Arabia and Syria could do to forge Arab unity and stabilize the Middle East.

Divisions between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, of the Fatah movement, and Hamas have deepened after Abbas agreed to shelve a United Nations war crimes report criticizing the Israeli invasion of Gaza.

Saudi Arabia, along with the United States, support Abbas while Syria and Iran back the Islamist Hamas, whose leader in exile Khaled Meshaal lives in Syria.

Editing by Michael Roddy

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