x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Beirut summit of regional powers calls for peace

The leaders of Saudi Arabia and Syria meet with Lebanon's Michel Suleiman to bolster "Lebanon's interest above factional ones".

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, left, shakes hands with Syria's President Bashar al Assad as Lebanon's President Michel Suleiman smiles at the presidential palace in Baabda, near Beirut.
Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, left, shakes hands with Syria's President Bashar al Assad as Lebanon's President Michel Suleiman smiles at the presidential palace in Baabda, near Beirut.

BEIRUT // In an unprecedented effort by regional powers to prevent Lebanon from returning to chaos amid mounting political tensions, the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Syria and Lebanon met in Beirut yesterday for a historic summit. The meeting between the Lebanese president, Michel Suleiman, King Abdullah bin Abdel Aziz of Saudi Arabia and the Syrian president, Bashar al Assad, was prompted by rumours that Hizbollah officials might be indicted by an international tribunal for the 2005 killing of former prime minister Rafik Hariri.

In a statement released after the meetings, the leaders called upon all Lebanese factions "not to resort to violence and to place Lebanon's interest above factional ones", according to an early English translation of the communique. It also emphasised the need to "resort to legal institutions and Lebanon's unity government to resolve any differences". The visit not only marked the first time that Mr al Assad had visited Lebanon since Syrian troops were forced out in the aftermath of Hariri's assassination in a massive car bombing, but was also the first visit by King Abdullah since he officially ascended to the throne.

The hastily arranged summit came as Lebanon's recent two year spurt of political stability appears threatened by yet unproven rumours that members of the Shiite Islamist group Hizbollah will be named as conspirators in Hariri's slaying. This would put the group at odds with Hariri's son, Saad Hariri, who last year became prime minister. Security in Beirut reached unprecedented levels as Mr Suleiman greeted the other heads of state at Beirut's Rafik Hariri International Airport before accompanying them to the presidential palace for a series of meetings, followed by a luncheon with 250 members of Lebanon's political and social elite.

Helicopters buzzed overhead as Lebanese special forces commandos closed major intersections throughout the capital, which had already become clogged with an estimated one million summer season tourists, effectively shutting down the city for much of the day. The three heads of state first attended a private meeting to discuss regional affairs, as well as the implications of the impending indictments by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL). That meeting later expanded to include top advisors as well as Mr Hariri and Parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri.

As the luncheon opened, political advisors to Mr Hariri told the media that the three countries had agreed in principle to a statement on any possible STL indictments that would be released late last night after some issues on specific wording were resolved. Mr Hariri's political advisors refused to comment on whether a more substantial agreement on avoiding such violence or factional interests had been reached.

Regardless, the meetings were immediately seen as a good sign as former bitter regional rivals Syria and Saudi Arabia appeared to offer Lebanon unified support at a time of tension between Mr Hariri's primarily Sunni Muslim backers who often look to the Saudis for support, and Hizbollah, which is closely aligned with Syria. Lebanon's citizens have grown increasingly concerned about the possibility of indictments of Hizbollah members, which many fear could return the country to the occasional bouts of sectarian violence and deep political instability that roiled the country in the aftermath of Hariri's murder, which many Lebanese blamed on Syria.

Those clashes came to an end after Hizbollah and its allies forcibly seized much of West Beirut in May 2008. In the aftermath of that near return to civil war, Lebanese political rivals agreed to a compromise unity government brokered by Qatar that has since held. Jean Moussa, 24, a Beirut resident, said the idea of Syria and Saudi Arabia meeting to discuss Lebanon's fate was unnerving, but agreed there was some hope that the meeting actually took place within Lebanon itself.

"During the Civil War, always there was the Syrian and Saudi leaders meeting together, but they did it outside Lebanon," he said. "Then, after a few weeks, months, something big would always happen, and it was always very negative. I think one positive thing is that they are meeting in Lebanon, and with the president of Lebanon. It may be something positive, maybe, hopefully. But this is the history that we remember."

Keeping the so called "Doha Accord" intact played a major role in the summit, as indicated by the expected arrival last evening of Qatar's Emir Hamid bin Khalifa al Thani to reinforce the agreements reached yesterday afternoon. Although the international tribunal released a rare statement on Thursday denying that it has been politicised, and urging caution about drawing conclusions, in a speech last week, Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah dramatically announced that Mr Hariri had personally warned him members of his group would be indicted.

Mr Hariri's staff later denied having made that statement, but within Hizbollah, the perception they will be targeted by the STL remains a certainty. Minister of Agriculture Hussein Hajj Hassan, a Hizbollah member, yesterday stressed the group's "complete rejection of accusing any Hizbollah member". He added, in a religious event for supporters, that, "this accusation is an American-Israeli incitement project that aims at targeting the resistance and imposing a situation July war failed to impose."

But despite this heated rhetoric, another Hizbollah MP, Nawaf Moussawi, told a local newspaper that the role of Qatar and the presumed addition of its Emir yesterday to the talks showed a serious commitment to maintaining stability, which he credited to the Qatari ruler's "wisdom". Christian supporters of Mr Hariri's bloc, who tend towards outspoken opposition to all things Syrian and Hizbollah-related, however, were left furious when their major leaders were not invited to attend either the meetings or the luncheon event.

Political cooperation between Damascus and Riyadh could push Mr Hariri, who personally lobbied for the tribunal, into a position unthinkable even two years ago. Influential Lebanese political analyst and blogger Elias Muhanna wrote in comments emailed to The National : "Unless Syria and Saudi Arabia agree amongst themselves to force Saad Hariri and his political coalition to denounce the STL's findings - thereby draining it of legitimacy in Lebanon - then it is difficult to see how they minimize the impact of an indictment against Hizbollah," he said.

@Email:mprothero@thenational.ae