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Assad with Abdullah in Beirut
Photo: AP
Assad, Abdullah stress Lebanese stability
Rare visit to Beirut by Syrian, Saudi leaders centers on averting violence if Hezbollah men indicted

The leaders of Syria and Saudi Arabia made an unprecedented show of cooperation Friday on a historic visit to Beirut, saying Lebanon's interests were a top priority in light of reports Hezbollah members may be indicted in the Hariri assassination case.

 

The unusual joint visit by Syrian President Bashar Assad and Saudi King Abdullah underscored the depth of Arab concern over potential chaos in Lebanon. Many people fear indictments of Hezbollah members could spark clashes between Lebanon's Sunnis and Shiites, sparking a conflict that could eventually pull Israel in.

 

The summit also consecrated both countries' roles as power brokers in the region.

 

The king and Assad walked side-by-side down the staircase from a Saudi jet at Beirut's airport and entered talks with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, President Michel Suleiman and other officials. Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah did not take part, but the group's Cabinet ministers were on hand.

 

It was Assad's first visit to Lebanon in eight years. The highway from Beirut's airport into the city was lined with Syrian and Saudi flags, as well as banners with Assad's picture that proclaimed "Welcome among your family".

 

Those words were a stark contrast to the bitterness many Lebanese vented at Syria when it was forced to withdraw its military in 2005, ending a nearly three-decade hold on Lebanon.

 

Few details about the discussions emerged. Afterward, Assad gave reporters a thumbs-up and said "it was an excellent summit" as he left Lebanon's presidential palace.

 

The crisis centers around the international tribunal investigating the assassination of Hariri's father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, in a Valentine's Day truck bombing in 2005. Indictments are expected this year.

 

The Netherlands-based tribunal has not said who will be charged, but the leader of Hezbollah said last week he already knows that Hezbollah members will be among them. That could spark riots between the Sunni supporters of Hariri and Shiites who largely back Hezbollah.

 

White House commends summit

The two sides have clashed before in their power struggle. In May 2008, Hezbollah gunmen swept through Sunni pro-government neighborhoods of Beirut, raising the threat of a new civil war. The crisis was resolved only after Arab countries mediated a truce and political compromise between the two sides that has tenuously held since.

 

After Friday's meeting, Lebanon, Syria and Saudi Arabia issued a joint statement that urged all parties to put Lebanon's interests above all else and refrain from violence.

 

"Solidarity is a necessity, and standing side-by-side to confront challenges facing the Arab world," they said.

 

Many in Lebanon blame Syria for Rafik Hariri's death, charges that Damascus denies. The killing sparked massive anti-Syrian protests in Lebanon, dubbed the "Cedar Revolution," which led to the Syrian withdrawal.

 

The assassination also deepened a rift between Syria and Saudi Arabia, which each backed rival sides in the ensuing power struggle that nearly tore Lebanon apart: Syria backing a Hezbollah-led coalition, and Saudi Arabia and the United States supporting Saad Hariri's Sunni-led coalition.

 

In recent years, however, Assad and Abdullah have repaired ties, and the joint visit was a sign of how much the rift has healed.

 

In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the US hoped Friday's meeting would produce "a recommitment to Lebanese sovereignty" and "an understanding to try to restrain those elements within Lebanon who have precipitated conflict in the past."

 

Assad rarely goes to Beirut. His last visit in 2002 was the first by a Syrian leader to the Lebanese capital in nearly three decades. Abdullah also was last in Lebanon in 2002, when he was crown prince.

 


פרסום ראשון: 07.30.10, 23:10
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