Saudi-Syrian Summit: What of the Hariri Tribunal?

Dr. Bechara Nassar Charbel :Saudi-Syrian Summit: What of the Hariri Tribunal?

  • 22 October 2009

The impact of Saudi–Syrian summit held in Damascus in early October will not be felt soon. It will appear gradually in more than one region and on more than one contentious issue as events unfold; and as the importance of its elements and their ability to impede the new agreements becomes apparent.

The meeting between the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia and Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad was more than just a courtesy visit of the former to Damascus in response to President Assad’s presence at the opening of the University of Science and Technology, north of Jeddah, in September 2009. A new page had already been turned at the Kuwait economic summit in January 2009, when His Majesty the Saudi King held the hand of the young President and called him the son who would return to his Arab home after a long journey to Iran. His Majesty the Saudi King said that “we do not want it (Syria) to leave the Arab flock,” or its alliance with Tehran to sever the prospects of its return, which would revitalize the Arab system. “We do not want to snuff out the constant yearning for the return of the Saudi – Egyptian – Syrian alliance that stood fast for over two decades despite the threats facing the region and the differences in view on major issues, the most prominent being the Iraq-Iran war and the fall of Baghdad”.

Undoubtedly, the Lebanon file was the main premise for the Saudi–Syrian reconciliation. It was in Lebanon, that the most intense confrontation between the “axis of resistance” and the “axis of moderation” took place. The Lebanese file was the cause behind the differences between Saudi Arabia and Syria and Iraq proved a catalyst in widening the differences further. By extending its hand to Damascus, the Kingdom was interpreting developments taking place in the region, and the international changes started by US President Barack Obama’s initiation of the age of diplomacy and dialogue, especially with Iran and its nuclear file. It took into consideration the opening of doors between Syria and the heirs of the Ottomans, as a strengthening of the ‘resistance bloc’ and sought to keep a ‘flexible openness’ with adversaries of the past and historical enemies alike.

Riyadh is seeking to restore severed relations in a set of circumstances that are very different from the dark period that began in 2005, following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and the widespread accusations of Syria’s involvement in the crime. It is also different from the circumstances resulting from the withdrawal of Syrian military forces from Lebanon again in 2005 and the outbreak of the July 2006 war, during which President Assad called many Arab leaders as being ‘half-men’. Syria has less influence today on a variety of issues than it had earlier. It is still influential in Lebanon, but its strong ally Hezbollah is primarily loyal to the ‘guardianship of the jurisprudence’ (velayat-el faqih) in Iran, and not to the President residing in the Muhajirin Palace in Damascus. It is influential in Iraq, but far less than what it was in the early years following the US occupation of Baghdad in 2003. The security cooperation between Syria and the US is satisfactory and the infiltration of fighters through its borders is limited. However, Tehran’s influence in Iraq is much bigger than that of Damascus, which is accused by major Iraqi parties of being behind the explosions of August 19 in Baghdad.

As for Riyadh, it is also in need to close the page on poor relations with Syria for many reasons. The most important being the several changes that might overwhelm the region—like the bombing of reactors and the change in regimes and power equations. It is certain that no single side is capable of winning the conflict decisively, and that a state of stalemate and confusion would continue. This stalemate could generate political and sectarian seditions in several places, and foment conflict that will not only destroy the little residual tenacity of the Arab system but also what remains within Arab societies. Riyadh does not seek to come closer to Damascus to cause fissures between the Umayyad capital and Tehran, but only to restore the balance that would ease the severity of divisions, and to bring down existing heightened levels of tensions. The Kingdom is aware that the return of Damascus to the Arab fold lies in the interest of both parties. It could prove crucial in weakening the grip of Tehran on more than one front for the sake of Arab security and Arab national interests, starting with Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq and even the Houthi group in Yemen. Therefore, this rapprochement represents reciprocity of needs imposed by the Damascus summit. Syria cannot continue with its 100 percent alliance with Iran, and Saudi Arabia has a large Islamic, Arab and national responsibility that forces it to overlook its individual interests in order to facilitate the naturalization of relations.

The details of the understanding between Riyadh and Damascus have not yet been divulged, but they are expected to be profound and durable. It has been learned that the understanding on the Iraqi situation and support for the establishment of its state is almost complete. Syria has also openly spoken against any threat to the unity of Yemen and to its regime as well as against any disturbance on the borders of the Kingdom. It has also assured that it would facilitate Palestinian reconciliation despite its reservations on the Egyptian role in Gaza and Lebanon. Syria has also indicated that it would try to reduce Hamas’ ‘excesses,’ and that it would exert pressure on its leaders in Damascus in this regard, notwithstanding their ties with Tehran.

On Lebanon, it seems the formula of ‘no winner, no loser’ has been adopted as the basis of understanding between the two Arab countries. Syria promises that this understanding will grow, albeit at a slow pace as Iran has the final word in decisions on Hezbollah and its ally, General Michel Aoun. There are talks about a complete agreement on promoting a government of national unity, and the execution of the decisions taken in the national dialogue process over the disarmament of the Palestinian weapons outside the camps. This means it accepts the pressure being exerted by this weapon. Many observers say that Riyadh has grown disillusioned by the Lebanese subject and has become open to accepting the impossibility of achieving the ‘March 14’ objectives of extending Lebanese sovereignty over all its territories, the full control of the military over all areas of the state, and the full independence and authority of the country’s decision-making institutions. This was apparent from the atmosphere prevailing during the visit of King Abdullah, and the article of the chief editor of the Riyadh magazine, who called for “returning Lebanon to Syria” because it was a “historical mistake caused by colonialism,” although the author later retracted and apologized for “what I imagined and meant by mistake”!

Despite that, Saudi Arabia has left many questions unanswered on the “momentous” event and the resulting understanding, as well as its response to leaked reports. What will be the position of Riyadh if the international tribunal implicates Damascus in the assassination of Hariri? Is there a certain understanding that would overlook the tribunal’s ruling? What will be the position of Riyadh if the nuclear file will impose the return of all Syrian files from the beginning? These questions are just a few of the several questions that come to mind.