Two years ago, a Syrian well connected with his country's regime was chatting with two Lebanese journalists at a conference in Venice. At the time Syria, which had withdrawn its army from Lebanon after the February 2005 assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, was seeking to reassert its power in Beirut against the governing coalition known as March 14.
As my journalist friends recounted it, the Syrian's message was a simple one: "You Lebanese have one of two choices," he told them. "You can either choose Syria or Iran." In many respects that phrase encapsulates mainstream Arab thinking on Lebanon today. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia visited Beirut yesterday in the presence of the Syrian president, Bashar al Assad. In so doing he effectively blessed the return of Syrian domination over Lebanon, albeit minus a military presence, implicitly declaring that the country, whatever else it is, would not be Iranian.
It has been more than a year that the Saudis and Syrians have reconciled, following three years of recrimination between Damascus and Riyadh. However, it was not the killing of Mr Hariri, a Saudi protégé, that led to the rift, given that Syria probably ordered the crime (long the assessment of the Saudis). Rather, it was Mr Assad's decision to strengthen his bonds with Iran after the election in 2005 of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This was followed by a personal dispute sparked during the Lebanon war of 2006, when the Syrian president called Arab leaders who condemned Hizbollah "half men".
During the years 2006-2008 there was an ongoing Saudi-Syrian struggle over Lebanon. The Syrians, keen to reverse the humiliation of 2005, increasingly relied on Hizbollah to undermine the March 14-led government of Fouad Siniora backed by Saudi Arabia. This had the knock-on effect of increasing Iran's sway in Lebanon, and indeed on several occasions in 2007, when Sunni-Shiite animosities were at their paroxysm in the streets of Beirut, Saudi Arabia's Prince Bandar bin Sultan met with Ali Larijani to calm the situation.
The Syrians had mixed feelings. While Mr Assad was happy to see his enemies destabilised by Hizbollah, his main aim throughout was to ensure that Lebanon would return to the Syrian fold, not become an Iranian asset. As for the Saudis, their involvement in the particulars of Lebanese affairs was fraught with difficulties. Their allies could not compete with an armed Hizbollah on the ground, and the Siniora government proved incapable of consolidating its authority.
In May 2008, Hizbollah invaded western Beirut and moved into the Druse-controlled mountains to force the government to back down on two decisions Hizbollah saw as being directed against its interests. The Qataris intervened, finalising a solution in Doha. This was a significant setback for the Saudis, traditionally the mediators in Arab crises, one favouring their Qatari rivals. Following the Gaza war some months later, when the so-called Arab moderates found themselves isolated for opposing Hamas, King Abdullah decided to alter course.
The Saudi monarch had more important priorities than Lebanon, not least that Iran was gaining ground in the region, particularly in Iraq and on the Palestinian front. In February 2009, at an economic summit in Kuwait, King Abdullah declared that he would reconcile with Syria. Lebanon was the prize. The implicit quid pro quo was that Mr Assad would once again be given a decisive voice in Lebanese affairs, but that he must not allow Iran, through Hizbollah, to use the country against Arab interests, particularly those of Saudi Arabia.
This brought about a political transformation on the Lebanese scene. Saad Hariri, Rafiq's son, followed in Riyadh's footsteps. Having won the parliamentary elections of summer 2009 against a Hizbollah-led alliance, he became prime minister in autumn. Though Mr Hariri had accused the Syrians of being behind the assassination of his father, he knew that his appointment meant he would have to shake Mr Assad's hand and let bygones be bygones. In December of last year he visited Damascus, and has, since, used his newborn ties with Mr Assad to counterbalance Hizbollah, therefore Iran, domestically.
In an interview with the Saudi daily Al-Hayat one week ago, Mr Hariri, just back from another visit to Damascus, didn't mince words. "We're heading in the direction of a genuine, correct and fraternal relationship with Syria, from which there is no going back," he declared. In recent weeks the tension in Lebanon has risen, amid reports that Hizbollah might be implicated in Rafiq Hariri's assassination. The secretary general of the party, Hassan Nasrallah, has denounced the international-Lebanese tribunal set up to indict the perpetrators as an "Israeli project". For Sheikh Nasrallah, Mr Hariri must end Lebanese co-operation with the institution. Hizbollah officials have warned darkly of a return to May 2008 if the party were to be accused.
Yet Mr Hariri does not seem particularly alarmed by the threats. A return to May 2008 seems improbable in the present context. Syria, which intends to play Mr Hariri against Hizbollah in order to regain a measure of Syrian control over the party, will not allow it. Nor will Damascus permit Hizbollah to bring down the Hariri government, since that would harm its relationship with Saudi Arabia. The reverse side of the coin, however, is that Mr Assad does not want Hizbollah overly weakened. This would damage Syria's relationship with Iran, denying it the latitude to situate itself profitably between the Arabs and Tehran. The presence of a potent Hizbollah also allows Syria to sell itself regionally and internationally as the sole actor in Lebanon capable of containing the party. Finally, Mr Assad is also determined to eventually use Hizbollah against Mr Hariri, in his broader bid to restore Syria's hegemony over its smaller neighbour.
Earlier this week, when it was still unclear whether Mr Assad would visit Beirut with King Abdullah, some in March 14 suggested that the Syrian leader would bow out, to avoid irritating Iran. They missed the point. Mr Assad welcomed the symbolism of the joint visit to signal to the Iranians that while the Damascus-Tehran relationship persists, Lebanon is Syria's once again, with an Arab consensus backing this up, so that Iran and Hizbollah must accept the new reality.
But the test of Syrian-Iranian ties will be whether Iran can live with what one Hariri parliamentarian, Bassem al-Shabb, calls the "dual key" approach to Hizbollah's weapons. Would Syria permit Hizbollah to retaliate militarily against Israel following an attack against Iran by Israel or the United States? Syria would be tempted to do so if the settlement is negotiated in Damascus and it can increase its power in Lebanon as a consequence. However, that may not be how the Saudis perceive of their new understanding with Syria.
For now Mr Assad can delight in the fact that the ambiguities in Lebanon, whether they involve the Lebanese government, Saudi Arabia, Iran, or Hizbollah, are all playing out in his favour. Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut. His book, The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon's Life Struggle (Simon & Schuster), has recently been published.