Saudi, Syrian leaders arrive for talks in Lebanon

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and Syrian President Bashar Assad visited Beirut on Friday in a show of unity before an international tribunal’s indictments in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

The visit appeared to be an attempt to quell anxiety in Lebanon that followed a speech last week by Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the militant group Hezbollah, in which he denied links between his party and Hariri’s death. Nasrallah called the tribunal’s investigation an “Israeli project.”

The dramatic arrival of the Saudi and Syrian leaders suggests that they may seek to pressure the various Lebanese factions to strike a deal to preserve the country’s stability without undermining the credibility of the United Nations-backed tribunal.

“My sense is that [ Syria and Saudi Arabia] wouldn’t have staged such a high profile visit with all the pageantry had they not come to some kind of an agreement or accommodation ahead of time,” Lebanon expert Elias Muhanna said in an interview.

The visit has received breathless coverage in Lebanon. The country’s president, prime minister and parliamentary speaker stood side by side to receive the heads of state as they descended from a Saudi jet onto a red carpet at Rafik Hariri International Airport, named for the slain billionaire politician.

The trip was Assad’s first to Lebanon since 2005, when Syria, which once controlled Lebanese politics, was forced to withdraw its troops after Hariri and 22 others were killed in a massive explosion for which many Lebanese blamed Damascus. The popular anti-Syrian protests, dubbed the “Cedar Revolution,” also spurred the creation of the U.N. tribunal to investigate the assassination.

The ruling March 14 Coalition, led by the slain prime minister’s son and current prime minister, Saad Hariri, has backed the tribunal. The coalition is backed by the United States and Saudi Arabia. By attacking the legitimacy and findings of the investigation, Nasrallah stoked fears of renewed political deadlock and sectarian violence.

Nasrallah has told his followers that the tribunal is planning to issue indictments against members of Hezbollah, which has the support of Syria and Iran. At first, he seemed to acknowledge that some “undisciplined members” might have been involved, but later he refused to accept charges against even “half a member” of the group.

Saad Hariri moved quickly to dispel fears of a showdown, but observers say that if his March 14 movement pursues the indictments, Hezbollah and its allies could bring down the government and might resort to military force similar to the events of May 2008 when Hezbollah fighters seized much of the capital.

As two of Lebanon’s main sponsors, Syria and Saudi Arabia only recently reconciled after a falling out over Hariri’s death and its aftermath. As is often the case in Lebanon, the Saudi-Syrian rapprochement was soon followed by reconciliation between Lebanon’s sparring factions and between Lebanon and Syria.

“The Syrians and Saudis have decided their interests are aligned in Lebanon and so they need to solve this issue without it blowing up in either of their faces,” Muhanna said. “Some people are saying hopefully Saudi and Hariri will listen to Syria and … recognize the folly of trying to corner Hezbollah. The other interpretation is where the U.S. comes in and says Syria has to listen to Saudi Arabia.”

Another possible scenario could see several low-ranking Hezbollah members sacrificed and repudiated by the party. However, if, as some reports indicate, the tribunal fingers high-ranking officials, both sides could find themselves in unsettling predicaments.

Lutz is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Jeffrey Fleishman in Cairo contributed to this report.