Syrian President Bashar Assad called Saturday for an end to the International Court of Justice's investigation into the murder of former Lebanese President Rafik Hariri, claiming that the court has turned into an albatross for Lebanon and threatens its stability.
According to a report in the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar, Assad warned against pointing accusatory fingers at Hezbollah regarding the murder of Hariri and claimed that doing so could very well bring about the destruction of Lebanon.
At a meeting with Saudi King Abdullah and Lebanese Premier Michel Suleiman, Assad said that the ICJ has pointed accusatory fingers at Syria in the past and almost caused a catastrophe for the entire Middle East.
Those claims turned out to be baseless, according to Assad. "We cannot accept the same script in regards to Hezbollah," Assad said, stating that Syria would protect Hezbollah.
The Friday meeting between the leaders of Syria and Saudi Arabia, once bitter rivals, was an unprecedented show of cooperation to prevent any breakout of violence in Lebanon if members of the Shiite militant group Hezbollah are indicted in the 2005 assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister.
The unusual joint visit by Syrian President Bashar Assad and Saudi King Abdullah underscored the depth of Arab concern over potential chaos in Lebanon. Many fear indictments could spark clashes between Lebanon's Sunnis and Shiites or that Hezbollah's nemesis Israel could be pulled into a conflict, causing wider regional turmoil.
The summit also consecrated the power-broker roles of Iran's ally Syria and pro-U.S. Saudi Arabia.
Washington has long tried to uproot Syrian influence in Lebanon. Instead, Damascus and Riyadh seem to have been forced into a fragile understanding, suggesting both see a greater interest in keeping Lebanon quiet after years of feuding over it.
The king and Assad walked side-by-side down the staircase from a Saudi jet at Beirut's airport and entered talks with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, President Michel Suleiman and other officials. The leader of Hezbollah, who rarely appears in public, did not take part, but Hezbollah Cabinet ministers were on hand.
It was Assad's first visit to Lebanon in eight years. The highway from Beirut's airport into the city was lined with Syrian and Saudi flags as well as banners with Assad's picture, proclaiming Welcome among your family, a stark contrast to the bitterness many Lebanese vented at Syria when it was forced to pull out its military in 2005, ending a nearly three-decade military hold on Lebanon.
Afterward, Assad gave reporters a thumbs-up and said it was an excellent summit as he left Lebanon's presidential palace.
"This is significant for two leaders who were fighting it out in Beirut just a few years ago," said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. "This indicates that they think this crisis is so big that they have to come themselves."
The crisis centers around the international tribunal investigating the assassination of Hariri's father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, in a Valentine's Day truck bombing in 2005. Indictments are expected this year, and while the Netherlands-based tribunal has not said who will be charged, the leader of Hezbollah said last week he already knows that Hezbollah members will be among them.
That could spark riots between the Sunni supporters of Hariri and Shiites who largely back Hezbollah. The two sides have clashed before in their power struggle. In May 2008, Hezbollah gunmen swept through Sunni pro-government neighborhoods of Beirut, raising the threat of a new civil war. That crisis was resolved only after Arab countries mediated a truce and political compromise between the two sides that has tenuously held since.
Lebanon, Syria and Saudi Arabia issued a joint statement after their meeting, urging all parties to put Lebanon's interests above all else and refrain from violence.
"Solidarity is a necessity, and standing side-by-side to confront challenges facing the Arab world," they said.
Many in Lebanon blame Syria for Rafik Hariri's death, charges that Damascus denies. The killing sparked massive anti-Syrian protests in Lebanon, dubbed the Cedar Revolution, leading to the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon later the same year, ending almost three decades of Syrian domination.
The assassination also deepened a rift between Syria and Saudi Arabia, who each backed rival sides in the ensuing power struggle that nearly tore Lebanon apart: Syria backing a Hezbollah-led coalition and Saudi Arabia and the United States supporting Saad Hariri's Sunni-led coalition.
In recent years, however, Assad and Abdullah have repaired ties, and the joint visit was a sign of how far the rift has healed.
Assad rarely goes to Beirut. His last visit in 2002 was the first by a Syrian leader to the Lebanese capital in nearly three decades. Abdullah also was last in Lebanon in 2002, when he was crown prince.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah's announcement on July 22 that members of his movement were expected to be indicted appeared to be an attempt to deflate any repercussions. A Hezbollah spokesman Ibrahim Moussawi told The Associated Press the group welcomed Friday's summit.
Nasrallah said his group will not turn over any of its members for trial. He said the tribunal has no credibility and is simply an Israeli plot.
Another factor behind the concerns in Lebanon is that any turmoil within this country could expand into conflict with Israel, which fought a month-long war with Hezbollah in the summer of 2006. Some in Israel fear Hezbollah could lash out at them if indicted. Some Lebanese worry the indictment could give Israel fodder to justify a new assault on the heavily armed guerrilla force.
"People here are reading this as, this is raising the risk of an Israeli war sometime in the future," Salem said.
The Saudi and Syrian pressure on their Lebanese allies doesn't guarantee an indictment against Hezbollah will go quietly, warned Fadia Kiwan, a political science professor at Beirut's St. Joseph University.
"This could ignite the streets," she said. "Politicians are now using a quiet language and trying to calm down the situation, but the problems are in the streets."
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