x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

United Arab front may not prevent violence

Analysis Saudi Arabia has swiftly moved with Syria to steady regional nerves spooked by the spectre of Hizbollah in the killing of Rafi Hariri.

DAMASCUS // The killing of Rafik Hariri has loomed like an iceberg on the Middle East's horizon for years, threatening to sink the region into a new round of dangerous instability and sectarian bloodletting. For a time it had faded from view and Lebanon, a permanent focal point and theatre for the Middle East's numerous woes, had enjoyed relative calm. But, to general alarm, the 2005 assassination of the former Lebanese premier has again lurched back to the surface.

It was the prospect of a new breakdown in Lebanon, brought about by recent suggestions Hizbollah will be implicated in the murder of Hariri, that prompted a quick response from Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, who moved urgently to steady regional nerves. The central thrust of Riyadh's diplomatic offensive to Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon last week was to ensure a united Arab front. The image of the Saudi monarch arriving in Beirut alongside Syria's president, Bashar al Assad, to be greeted by Lebanese officials from various factions, was perhaps the central piece of symbolism from the tour.

Syria and Saudi Arabia remain highly - and controversially - influential over Lebanese politics. When they co-operate, peace has a chance; if not, violence is always a distinct possibility. The two great Arab powers were at daggers drawn when Lebanon last teetered on the brink of civil war in 2008, but since then their relationship has improved markedly. For now, at least, it is clear that that they intend to keep it that way.

Damascus is a key supporter for Hizbollah, the Shiite resistance movement, while Riyadh backs the other major political bloc in Lebanon, the Sunni-dominated faction led by the current prime minister Saad Hariri, son of the late premier. It was those two groups that hovered close to war two years ago, and it was a Syrian-Saudi deal that helped avert a conflagration. Qatar also played a key role in bringing about the detente of the 2008 Doha Accords and, pointedly, the Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani was also in Lebanon on Friday, viewing reconstruction projects to repair damage from the 2006 Israel-Hizbollah war - another signal that the Arab countries that helped stabilise Lebanon want to see that stability remain intact.

Damascus will not weaken its alliance with Hizbollah, which it views as essential for its own security, given the continued state of war between Syria and Israel. It can, however, counsel its ally to react calmly to any indictments issued by the UN tribunal to prosecute those behind the killing. Pictures of King Abdullah and Mr al Assad arriving in Beirut together would have indicated to Hizbollah that it has no blank cheque from Damascus if it decides to take-on its old rivals in a physical confrontation. Syria now supports and has support - albeit conditional support - from more than just Hizbollah in Lebanon and wants to see those interests safeguarded.

From Damascus, the view is that only Syria's enemy Israel would derive any benefit from renewed chaos in Lebanon, with Tel Aviv still desperate to weaken Hizbollah after the militants humiliated its army four summers ago. Saudi Arabia can likewise counsel its own Lebanese allies to react calmly to whatever findings the UN tribunal announces, rather than taking any steps that lead to confrontation with Hizbollah.

Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbollah's leader, is due to make a speech tomorrow evening and his comments will be closely watched to see if they conform to the consensus that now is the time to deflate tensions, rather than pump them up. The burst of pre-emptive diplomacy instigated by King Abdullah seems to have met with some success and, in taking steps to open dialogue and tamp down tensions before any shooting starts, it may prove able to stop that shooting ever taking place.

Still, the danger has by no means passed and, to a large extent, it remains outside of the control of any of the regional players. The Hariri tribunal is expected to issue indictments against suspects before the end of the year. Regardless of how politicised the investigation has or has not been, the fallout from its findings could still prove severe. The potential for sectarian violence in Lebanon is one that Arab leaders will be working hard over the coming months to avoid. But if the tribunal takes aim against Hizbollah, as now widely anticipated, even shuttle diplomacy may prove inadequate.

Like the Doha Accords that it sought to shore up, this latest bout of diplomacy offers respite but does not solve Lebanon's problems or the complex issues of the Middle East that underlay them. Even if a safe route past the iceberg of the Hariri killing is found, there is always that other, larger iceberg - the perennial Arab-Israel conflict - waiting out there to sink the region. psands@thenational.ae