In Rare Summit, Arab Rivals Try To Ease Tension

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Saudi King Abdullah, Lebanese President Michel Suleiman and Syrian President Bashar Assad. i

Lebanese President Michel Suleiman (center) receives Saudi King Abdullah (left) and Syrian President Bashar Assad upon their arrival at the Presidential Palace in Baabda, east of Beirut, on Friday. The leaders of Syria and Saudi Arabia launched an unprecedented effort Friday to defuse fears of violence over upcoming indictments in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Bilal Hussein/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Bilal Hussein/AP
Saudi King Abdullah, Lebanese President Michel Suleiman and Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Lebanese President Michel Suleiman (center) receives Saudi King Abdullah (left) and Syrian President Bashar Assad upon their arrival at the Presidential Palace in Baabda, east of Beirut, on Friday. The leaders of Syria and Saudi Arabia launched an unprecedented effort Friday to defuse fears of violence over upcoming indictments in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Bilal Hussein/AP

The Saudi and Syrian flags fluttered alongside Lebanon's state symbol in Beirut on Friday — an unusual sight that served as a welcome for the key players gathering for a landmark Arab summit.

Saudi Arabia and Syria are ideological rivals, but the Saudi king and the Syrian president traveled to Lebanon to try to defuse tensions over anticipated indictments from an international tribunal: The militant group Hezbollah is likely to be implicated in the 2005 murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and the group's leader has vowed to defy the tribunal, which is backed by the Lebanese government.

Many Lebanese, riveted to live coverage across the country, hoped the summit would be successful in easing the strain.

"They are trying to get to an agreement between all the Middle East area. They want peace," said Ali Agha, who watched the arrivals from a local cafe. "Hopefully, that's what we'll get to. That's what we want; we don't want any more wars or anything."

The gathering represents a dramatic turnaround in regional politics, says Lebanese analyst Paul Salem with the Carnegie Middle East Center.

"To see Saudi Arabia and Syria sort of on the same page and working together over this issue is remarkable because this is the issue that drove them apart five years ago ... bitterly," he says.

That issue is Hariri's murder, which many blamed on Syria, the main power broker in Lebanon at the time. Hariri was a Sunni leader with strong ties to Saudi Arabia. Syria denied involvement, but Saudi Arabia froze relations with Damascus.

Five years later, there is a political thaw that also includes the slain leader's son, Saad Hariri, who is now Lebanon's prime minister. He has stepped back from public accusations that Syria was responsible for his father's death. He has worked to repair relations with his powerful neighbor and a patron of Hezbollah.

Hariri's efforts have paid off in stability and cooperation with the Shiite organization. Hezbollah is represented in the Cabinet and in Parliament. But reports that Hezbollah will be implicated in his father's murder have sparked fears of a crisis that could unravel the country.

Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah said he will not accept indictments, claiming the charges are politically motivated — an Israeli plot — and warned that the militant movement knows how to fight.

This put Nasrallah on a collision course with the prime minister, who supports the investigation. That's why the summit was called even before the tribunal has officially announced any indictments, says Elias Muhanna, who writes an influential blog on Lebanon.

"The fact that they're meeting before the indictments are even issued, just to make sure that some kind of an alternative solution might be found, suggests that they really are trying to contain the situation before it gets out of hand," Muhanna says.

Containing the situation is a tall order for a summit that ended with a four-page document — without one word about the tribunal. But it did call on all sides not to resort to violence, and it's a message that carries more weight coming from the Syrians and the Saudis, the major power brokers in Lebanon.

The summit could head off Hezbollah demands to end government support and funding for the tribunal, an effort that would ultimately fail, Salem says.

"Hezbollah is an armed group that is of great concern to the Arab countries and states, of course to Israel and to the U.S. and to Europe and to the international community," he says. "This is not something that can be buried locally or stopped locally."

Hariri's supporters also demand the court continue its work — to answer a question that still haunts the country: Who killed Hariri? Billboards across the capital carry the slogan "The truth for the sake of Lebanon."

"I want to know the truth," says Ahmed Shabaro, a Beirut businessman. "Let the truths come out. Because if we don't know the truth ... the same people who killed will continue their killing and nobody will stop them. So you need to stop them."

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