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    Middle East
     Jul 25, 2009
Hezbollah stalls Syrian-Saudi detente
By Sami Moubayed

When Syria and Saudi Arabia decided to mend broken fences, right after the Israeli offensive on Gaza ended in January, some speculated that the rapprochement would be short-lived and was born strictly out of a Saudi need to open temporary channels with Hamas.

Clearly from the war's outcome, the Islamic group had not been destroyed by the Israeli Defense Forces, and not talking to it was not going to make it go away. The rising popularity of Hamas on the Islamic street, especially in Saudi Arabia, and the fact that several Western heavyweights such as French President Nicolas Sarkozy were now talking to Hamas via Syria, meant Saudi Arabia simply had to follow suit.

Saudi Arabia was also eyeing the situation in Iraq, realizing that


American days in the war-torn country were numbered now that Barack Obama was entering the White House. A vacuum was in the making, and either Iran or Saudi Arabia were going to fill it. The Saudis wanted Syria on their side, since the Syrian agenda for post-United States Iraq is very similar to the Saudi one, and equally very different from that of Tehran.

Common ground on Iraq, a new president in Washington, and need for cooperation on Palestine were what brought about the Syrian-Saudi rapprochement.

Photos of the Saudi King warming up to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the Gaza Summit in January made it to the front pages of Arab dailies, but many claimed that, apart from the photo session, little was going to happen. Despite much common ground on Iraq, the two countries still disagreed heavily on Lebanon.

Since then, however, the two countries have been sending positive signals to each other. In early 2009, Syria allowed open the offices of the popular Saudi daily, al-Hayat, which had been closed during the lowest point in Syrian-Saudi relations, back in October 2008. The newspaper, which mirrors a sophisticated Saudi approach to world affairs, was once again allowed on sale at Damascus newsstands.

The two countries then cooperated on the provincial elections in Iraq, and using influence with Sunni leaders, managed to get the Sunni community back into the political process - even in former hotbeds of Sunni insurgency, such as Saddam Hussein's hometown, Tikrit.

Neither the Syrians nor the Saudis were happy that since 2005 Iraq has been ruled by religiously driven Shi'ite politicians, while the Sunnis (traditionally under the umbrella of Damascus and Riyadh) had been sidelined so aggressively.

Once the Iraqi elections were over, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Mouallem visited Riyadh and pledged to work with his Saudi counterpart for safe and democratic parliamentary elections in Lebanon. More recently, a new Saudi ambassador, Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz al-Ayfan, has been assigned to Damascus, filling a post that had been vacant for over one year.

Early this month, Prince Abdel-Aziz bin Abdullah, a personal envoy of the Saudi king, and Saudi Culture Minister Abdel-Aziz Khoja went to Damascus to lay the groundwork for a Saudi monarchial visit to Syria. The king's visit was scheduled - according to Arabic dailies - for mid-July. It was believed that joining him in Damascus would be Lebanese President Michel Suleiman and Prime Minister-designate Saad al-Hariri.

The Syrian press welcomed the proposed visit, which would send a strong message to the Saudis that, despite his loud anti-Syrian tone since 2005, Hariri would today be welcome in Damascus. He would be welcome, the message seemed to be saying, because he was in the company of the king of Saudi Arabia.

Then suddenly, amidst high media speculation on the Abdullah-Suleiman-Assad visit, the Saudi monarch did not show up in Syria, raising speculation on what - if anything - had gone wrong? Buthaina Shaaban, media advisor to President Assad, commented that no date has been set for a Syrian-Saudi summit (making no reference to Hariri), adding that King Abdullah was welcome anytime in Damascus. There was no "Lebanese complex" obstructing improved relations between the two countries, she said.

The Syrians are insisting that, contrary to reports in the Arab media, the Syrian-Saudi rapprochement which started in early 2009 is still operational.

There are heavyweights in Saudi Arabia who want Abdullah to make the trip only after Hariri creates a cabinet of national unity in Lebanon. Bringing a fully fledged prime minister along is one thing, but taking a prime minister designate - who in three weeks of consultations has not succeeded in forming a government - is something completely different.

To date, Hariri has failed to bring all parties to endorse his program because Hezbollah has not yet approved the new prime minister's program. Hezbollah insists that it be given veto power in the new cabinet, known as the blocking third, to prevent Hariri from passing any legislation related to its arms and the international tribunal over his father's death without first getting approval of the Hezbollah-led opposition.

Members of Hariri's March 14 election alliance slammed Hezbollah in response, claiming that veto power was illogical for a party that had only 11 seats in parliament, or for an opposition that had a minority of only 57 out of 128 seats. One solution floated was to grant the Hezbollah-led opposition veto power over particular issues, such as the budget or a declaration of war, but this was turned down by Hezbollah, which made it clear it wants absolute veto-power rights in the entire cabinet.

Such behavior, the March 14 group claims, boils down to "high-pitch demands" by the Hezbollah-led opposition aimed at preventing Hariri's success, and therefore preventing the Saudi king from making his trip to Syria.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah came out last weekend and denied that veto-rights were preventing his party from joining the Hariri cabinet. He said Hezbollah wanted "no guarantees" about its weapons, or the special tribunal for assassinated former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri.

Nasrallah even added, "I would personally support such a government", even if it excluded members of Hezbollah. Many believe his tone aims to cover up a serious rift between him and Hariri, although both leaders continue to deny that there are any disagreements.

Hezbollah specifically wants veto rights in the Hariri cabinet and so do its allies, Syria and Iran, fearing that Hariri will use the Lebanese office to transform Lebanon into a launching pad against Damascus, the way things were back in 2005-2006.

Hezbollah is angry that Hariri has not budged, and it will surely not join the cabinet - despite all the sweet talk - if this veto authority is not granted by the prime minister-designate.

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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