Saudi-Syria tensions settle over Lebanon



Relations have turned decidedly frosty, with Riyadh no longer endorsing a strong role for Damascus in Lebanon, where it held political and military sway for almost three decades, analysts said.



"The Saudi-Syria conflict has already caused us problems, and since it has become an open dispute it will be worse for Lebanon," said Rafiq Khouri, editor-in-chief of the independent Al-Anwar newspaper in Lebanon.



In a tit-for-tat tirade, Syrian Vice President Faruq al-Shara aroused Saudi Arabia’s ire for suggesting that the oil-rich kingdom’s regional influence was almost in a state of paralysis.



Riyadh retorted that Damascus, already in US sights for failing to do enough to end the conflict in neighbouring Iraq, was trying to stoke disorder in the region.



Relations chilled after the assassination of the Saudi-backed Lebanese former prime minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005, which ultimately led to Syria’s humiliating pullout of its troops in Lebanon after a three-decade military presence.



And they deteriorated further last summer when Saudi Arabia implicitly accused the Syria- and Iran-backed Shiite movement Hezbollah of provoking the 34-day war with Israel which devastated Lebanon.



Syrian President Bashar al-Assad also infuriated Arab leaders when he labelled them "half men" for failing to support Hezbollah.



"Syria wants relations between the two countries to go back to what they were pre-2005," Saudi analyst Khalid al-Dakhil said.



"Saudi Arabia is dealing directly with Iran at the moment in addressing the situation in Lebanon, depriving Damascus of its previous middleman role," he added.



Dakhil said the repercussions of the Hariri killing — blamed by many on Syria — and a planned international tribunal to try the case, as well as differences over Lebanon’s upcoming presidential election, were among the main sources of tension.



"Syria is aiming through this escalation to push Saudi Arabia to put pressure on its allies in Lebanon to make concessions in the presidential issue," he said.



The Lebanese parliament is set to elect a successor to pro-Syrian Emile Lahoud by November 25 in a highly charged vote which optimists hope can resolve the country’s political impasse, but which pessimists fear will only further cement divisions.



"This dispute between the two most influential states in Lebanon will have a direct impact on the presidential election," Lebanon’s pro-Syrian newspaper As-Safir said.



The latest spat erupted even though the ice appeared to have been broken in March, when Saudi King Abdullah and Assad met on the sidelines of an Arab summit in Riyadh, for the first time since last summer’s war.



But Tariq al-Homayed, editor of the Saudi daily Asharq Al-Awsat, said Syria’s latest outburst reflected the "clear isolation" felt by Damascus as Iran, its main regional ally, appeared to be in constant contact with the Saudis to avert a Sunni-Shiite showdown in Lebanon.



"The Syrian regime does not realise that it has become an instrument in Iran’s hand, and not a major regional player," he wrote.



Syria has moved to calm the row, with an official saying Shara’s statements had been "unjustly distorted" and insisting that Damascus did not want to be "dragged into contests that serve only enemies of the two brotherly countries and the Arab nation."



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