Elizabeth A. Kennedy
Bierut — The Associated Press Published on Friday, Jul. 30, 2010 7:53AM EDT
The leaders of Syria and Saudi Arabia have arrived in Beirut for an unprecedented effort to avert a simmering crisis in Lebanon.
Tensions are mounting over expected indictments in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri — the son of the slain statesman — and President Michel Suleiman were at the airport as Saudi King Abdullah and Syrian President Bashar Assad landed on Friday.
It was a strong public show of co-operation between Saudi Arabia and Syria, which for years vied for influence over Lebanon.
Many fear that new violence between Lebanon’s Shiite and Sunni communities could break out if the international tribunal investigating Hariri’s death implicates the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, which is Syria’s main ally in Lebanon.
Mr. Hariri’s death was followed by the rise of a U.S.- and Saudi-backed coalition known as March 14, named after the day of massive anti-Syrian protests in 2005 dubbed the “Cedar Revolution.” The demonstrations eventually led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops, ending almost three decades of Syrian domination that was established during Lebanon’s civil war.
Mr. Assad’s visit to Lebanon on is his first trip there since Syrian troops were forced out.
Many in Lebanon blame Syria for Mr. Hariri’s assassination, a claim that Damascus denies. Mr. Hariri was a Sunni leader with strong Saudi links, and his killing exacerbated already-strained tensions between Riyadh and Damascus.
An international tribunal investigating Mr. Hariri’s death has not announced who will be charged, but the leader of the Shiite Hezbollah said last week members of his group will be among those indicted.
Hassan Nasrallah’s announcement appeared to be an attempt to undercut the effects of any indictment, and he dismissed the tribunal as an “Israeli plot.”
Many in Lebanon worry that if the tribunal implicates Hezbollah in the Hariri’s assassination, it could lead to another round of clashes between Lebanon’s Shiite and Sunni communities, such as the bloody conflict that convulsed Beirut in 2008.
Regional tensions also are high over recent reports that Syria sent Scud missiles to Hezbollah and suspicions that Hezbollah patron Iran wants to acquire nuclear weapons. Syria denies sending Scuds.
Syria on Thursday warned the United States to stop trying to interfere as Arab leaders try to defuse heightened tensions in the Middle East.
U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters in Washington this week that he hoped Syrian President Bashar Assad would “listen very attentively” to Abdullah, a U.S. ally.
Washington has urged Syria to move away from its alliance with Iran.
Syria responded that the U.S. “has no right to determine our relationships with regional states or interfere in the content of the talks.”
Syria and Saudi Arabia have long been on opposite sides of a deep rift in the Arab world. The kingdom is a U.S. ally, along with Jordan and Egypt, while Syria backs militant groups such as the Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas.
Syria also is Iran’s strongest ally in the Arab world — a major sticking point with the U.S.