Syria, Saudi Arabia Brace For Strife In Lebanon

The leaders of Syria and Saudi Arabia wrapped up a visit to Lebanon Friday, seeking to cool tensions over an imminent move to indict members of a Shiite militia for the 2005 assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri. The anticipated indictment from a special international tribunal has prompted worries about a new flare-up of sectarian violence in Lebanon. Guest host Jacki Lyden recaps the visit with NPR's Deborah Amos.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

The leaders of Syria and Saudi Arabia made an unprecedented joint visit to Lebanon yesterday, at a time of rising political tensions in the country. An international tribunal is expected to soon indict members of a Lebanese Shiite militant group, Hezbollah, on charges connected with the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri.

There are concerns in Beirut that the indictments could lead to new sectarian violence, and that prompted the meeting between the Saudi king and the Syrian president.

NPR's Deborah Amos joins us on the line from Beirut.

Hello, Deborah.

DEBORAH AMOS: Good morning.

LYDEN: Why has this murder investigation caused so much tension between these countries?

AMOS: The international tribunal has been investigating for years. But in the last week, something quite dramatic happened, and that is that the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, made a televised announcement that there would be some indictments against what he called rogue elements within Hezbollah. But he said that no one from Hezbollah could be indicted and he would defy the court, which in a way, Jacki, means that he will defy the Lebanese government, because they support and they fund the tribunal.

So Hezbollah is represented in this government. It's in the cabinet. They're in the parliament. So there's a potential for the government to fall, and as you said, there's a potential for sectarian conflict in the country. So that's why you saw a Saudi king and a Syrian president step in to meet.

LYDEN: That is really unusual. And is a one-day visit by these two enough to avert all these simmering tensions?

AMOS: Well, it's a start. And if you consider that these are the big guns and they came to town, so most people here think that the tensions will ease somewhat. At the end of the summit, all of the Lebanese parties hailed it as a success. And even Hezbollah officials were supportive. But we have no idea what backroom deals were made. The final communiqu� was bland even by Arab summit standards; it never once mentioned the tribunal, which is what we all know this was about.

The Saudi king and the Syrian president held talks with their supporters in the country. King Abdullah even went to Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri's home. It was a one-on-one chat. I think this is where the hard bargaining was done. Syria's foreign minister held talks with Hezbollah officials. We may hear leaks in the next couple of days about what exactly went on with those meetings. But we really don't know.

LYDEN: Deborah, it sounds as if this meeting shows that now, as in days gone by, it takes outside powers to solve Lebanon's internal problems.

AMOS: Jacki, Lebanon is always a place where regional troubles get played out. This is a proxy battlefield. And here is a larger context for why the tribunal raised so much tension. This month, Israel held a military rehearsal for a war with Lebanon. The Israelis released these official maps. They were classified photographs of what the Israelis described as a network of Hezbollah weapons depots. It's as if you put bulls-eyes on these places in Southern Lebanon -Hezbollah raised again by talking about targeting Israel. So there's been a war of nerves here and there's been talk of war for months.

The Saudis and the Syrians arrived to avert what I guess you could call the smaller crisis, which is potential of a government collapse. But in the back of everybody's mind is the potential for a regional war, and nobody wants that. So that is in part why this was such an important summit.

LYDEN: You know, it's interesting how things have changed. Five years ago, Syria, though a major player, was a pariah in Lebanon and its army was forced out of the country by the international community after the murder of the prime minister and isolated. And now today, of course, you have President Bashar al-Assad walking off the plane with the Saudi King Abdullah.

AMOS: It was amazing to see the two of them. At some moment the Saudi king wobbled a little bit. He's 87 years old. The young president was chatting the whole time that they were walking out of the airplane up to be greeted by Lebanese officials. They certainly are an odd couple. But there's been a thaw in relations over the past couple of months. Syria and Saudi Arabia are still ideological rivals. They're in different camps in the region. Syria is a ally of Iran and Hezbollah. Saudi Arabia is an ally of the United States, along with Jordan and Egypt. But in this case they are working together.

LYDEN: Well, once again, Deborah, you arrive at an interesting time.

NPR's Deborah Amos, speaking to us from Beirut.

Thank you, Deb.

AMOS: Thank you, Jacki.

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