The visit by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Saudi King Abdullah to Lebanon has been hailed as a significant step at easing the simmering tensions in the country. Some experts, however, are far from convinced.
There's more than peace at stake for Abdullah and Assad
With reports of clashes between Lebanese and Israeli forces, fears of a renewed conflict in Lebanon have been growing ever since Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, claimed members of his party were on the verge of being indicted by a UN tribunal probing the 2005 murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.
The UN's Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) is investigating claims that Hezbollah, with support from Syria, was behind the car bomb that killed Hariri in Beirut five years ago. Both the Shiite group and the government in Damascus have consistently denied the accusations. Syria pulled its troops out of Lebanon after a 29-year presence in response to the claims and bilateral ties between the two nations soured considerably as a result.
However, relations have been slowly normalizing, as indicated by President Assad's visit to Lebanon recently - his first since Hariri's assassination. While that in itself could be seen as a breakthrough, Assad's accompanying of King Abdullah - a close supporter of the Sunni Muslim Hariri family - has been hailed as being even more significant. Syria and Saudi Arabia have been on opposing sides in many of the complicated feuds in the Middle East, including that over influence in Lebanon, for decades.
Regional rivals the closest of enemies
Hezbollah paralyzed Beirut with strikes and unrest in 2008
Some observers have welcomed the visit as an attempt to defuse a situation which could potentially lead to a conflict similar to that in May 2008, when 100 people were killed in clashes that erupted when the government announced - and then repealed - a crackdown on Hezbollah. Others, however, believe Assad and Abdullah's mission could have wider, more damaging implications not only to Lebanon's stability but to the stability of the region as a whole.
"The Hariri family and Hezbollah, and their supporters, have been enemies for five or six years now which reflects the wider divisions in the Middle East," Nadim Shehadi, a Lebanon expert with the Middle East Programme at Chatham House, told Deutsche Welle. "This situation has been akin to the Cold War with the repercussions playing out everywhere from Palestine to Iraq."
"The most important recent development was seen at last year's Arab League summit in Doha where Gaza was the main topic," he added. "The Saudis were there, Egypt, Jordan…but the whole radical front boycotted the meeting. There was no Hamas, no Hezbollah, no Iran and no Syria."
"Saudi Arabia and Egypt were forced to look into the abyss and they saw that their power as interlocutors and mediators was under threat. Any deal in the region could be aborted by the radicals. It meant that more say had to be given to others for any progress to be made."
Saudi Arabia seen as giving Syria its backing to return to Beirut
Some analysts see King Abdullah's joint visit to Lebanon with Assad as the next step in a transfer of power and an indication that, instead of opposing a return to Syrian domination of Lebanon, Saudi Arabia is giving it its blessing. The visit is seen by some as a clear message that Syria, along with Iran - another major backer of Hezbollah, still holds sway in Lebanon.
Assad has met with Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Rafiq's son
"Bringing Assad to Lebanon on the Saudi royal plane is a very big blessing indeed," Paul Salem, the director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Beirut bureau, told Deutsche Welle.
"But Saudi Arabia brought Assad to Lebanon to help in a peace process not to give him carte blanche to do what he likes. He was effectively brought in to stop his friends in Hezbollah attacking the government. This is a clear sign that it won't just be Syria which is the go-to country for any Lebanon crisis, but Saudi Arabia too. The Saudis need to be involved to protect their friends in the Sunni community."
Any resurgence of Syrian influence in Lebanon, however, could further complicate matters in regard to the STL's findings and any indictment of Hezbollah members in Hariri's murder. Both Syria and Hezbollah have an interest in bringing the tribunal to an end and have a number of devices at hand to potentially force this outcome. While pressuring Saudi Arabia to use its relationship with the United States to postpone any indictment of Hezbollah members, the Saudis can not make the tribunal go away on their own. Syria and Hezbollah would have to do their part.
"When the Lebanese government was preparing to call for a tribunal, Hezbollah and the Syria-affiliated parties in the government pulled out and closed down the parliament," Shehadi said.
"Hezbollah then took over the city and paralyzed the institutions, shutting down the government's power to call its own tribunal. So the pro-tribunal parties had to call on the UN to form the tribunal, which was an unprecedented step. It effectively forced the tribunal on Lebanon and interfered in the running of a sovereign state."
"If the tribunal rules that Syria and Hezbollah was behind the Hariri assassination, then there is a great chance that we will see violence in Beirut. What could precede that is an attempt by Syria and Hezbollah to either paralyze the Lebanese government or change it. In both cases, a new government under anti-tribunal control can call for the investigation to be called off, saying that the two sides have reconciled and there is no need for it to continue. The UN will have to agree to this unless it can be proved that the country has been hijacked."
Hezbollah committed to changing Beirut's position
Paul Salem believes that Hezbollah will continue to push for the tribunal to be ended as long as it assumes that there is a political aspect to the tribunal's process which is aimed at punishing its members.
Hezbollah is prepared to do all it can to influence policy
"It's obvious that Syria and Hezbollah wants the tribunal to go away and they have been doing their best by discrediting it publically and claiming that it is politicized," Salem said. "They won’t be able to stop the tribunal as such but they could pressure the government to change its position through the threat of violence or by taking over Beirut, which could lead to a statement of no-confidence in the tribunal or a withdrawal of support from the government."
"This could lead to a situation where the tribunal has no Lebanese support which would mean arrest warrants could not be issued in Lebanon or arrests made. It could pass a guilty verdict on Hezbollah and/or Syria but little would change."
Peace pact appears to hinge on tribunal ending
Lebanese President Sleiman, right, could tow the line for peace
In the communique issued after the mini-summit between Assad, Abdullah and Lebanese President Michel Sleiman, all of Lebanon's political parties were urged to "pursue the path of appeasement and dialogue and to boost national unity in the face of outside threats."
The leaders stressed "the importance of stability... the commitment (of the Lebanese) not to resort to violence and the need to place the country's interests above all sectarian interests," the communique read.
Avoiding a return to violence between Hariri-supporting Sunnis and the Shiites of Hezbollah in Lebanon appears to be the main justification for the Syrian-Saudi agreement. However, it appears that this pact between two of the main players from the opposing sides can only ensure peace by removing the tribunal problem, given that Hezbollah has threatened to take whatever action it deems necessary should its members be indicted.
Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Rob Mudge