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
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
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
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.