A lack of progress in talks between Syria and Saudi Arabia is holding up the formation of a new Beirut government set to group Riyadh's allies in Lebanon with rivals backed by Damascus, a senior politician said.
Senior Saudi envoys have visited Damascus at least three times since Lebanon's parliamentary election a month ago, won by the "March 14" coalition led by Saad al-Hariri and backed by Riyadh and Washington.
The talks have highlighted the influence of Saudi Arabia and Syria in the country.
Foreign states have long held sway in Lebanon, whose rival politicians have a history of forging alliances with competing regional and international powers.
The last round of talks in Damascus on Friday grouped Saudi Prince Abdul-Aziz, King Abdullah's son, and Information Minister Abdul-Aziz Khoja, the former Saudi ambassador to Lebanon, with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose country dominated Lebanon until 2005.
The talks ended without a breakthrough needed to smooth the way for Hariri, prime minister-designate, to form the new cabinet, the senior Lebanese politician said on Tuesday.
"The atmosphere is good because Syria and Saudi Arabia are not arguing," the politician said.
Rivalry between the Arab states has been seen as central to the paralyzing and bloody crises that swept Lebanon after the 2005 assassination of statesman Rafik al-Hariri, Saad's father.
'General impression is negative'
Lebanese politicians attribute a spell of relative calm in the past six months to a thaw in ties between the states.
"Syria and Saudi Arabia are still in communication and have not hit a dead end. They came out of their talks positively but that does not mean that they agreed," the source said.
The source said the talks had focused on a possible Hariri visit to Syria, which the billionaire politician has accused of his father's assassination. The Sunni leader, who was raised in Saudi Arabia, is Riyadh's closest ally in Lebanon.
"The matter of the government formation is moving along naturally," Hariri said on Saturday. "The government of Lebanon is formed in Lebanon ... any other talk is incorrect," he said.
Syria's foreign minister said on Tuesday his country would not interfere in the formation of Lebanon's government.
Syria's allies in Lebanon, including the powerful Shiite group Hezbollah, hold effective veto power in the outgoing cabinet. They want the same in the new government.
Prior to the election, Hariri had stated his opposition to an extension of the power-sharing arrangement, brokered as part of a Qatari-mediated deal in May 2008.
He has not stated his position on the issue since the election. His allies have reiterated their objections to the idea of a veto for the rival coalition, which includes the Amal movement of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and Christian politician Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement.
Aoun said on Monday formation of the government would not be easy. The former army commander led a campaign of opposition to Syrian influence in Lebanon before his return from exile in 2005, when an era of Syrian domination ended with the withdrawal of Syrian troops from the country.
"The general impression is negative. The Lebanese have no role in the formation of their government," Aoun said in an interview with Hezbollah's al-Manar television.
"None of the Lebanese are involved. Receiving notification of what is going on outside is not participation."