Saudi, Syrian leaders meet as Lebanon tensions fester

RIYADH, Paul Handley- The Saudi and Syrian leaders met in Riyadh on Sunday as tensions rise in Lebanon over the fate of the UN probe into the 2005 assassination of ex-premier Rafiq Hariri.
The meeting between King Abdullah and President Bashar al-Assad came on the heels of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit last week to Lebanon, where he underlined his support for the Shiite militant group Hezbollah.

The Abdullah-Assad talks at Riyadh air base, the official SPA news agency reported, focused on "the latest developments in Islamic and Arab plans and the positions of the two countries, primarily on the Palestinian question."
It said the Syrian president left after the talks but did not elaborate on his discussions with the king.
Analysts said the key issue for Assad and Abdullah was current Prime Minister Saad Hariri's dispute with Hezbollah over the UN-backed tribunal on his father's murder.
Members of Hezbollah are reportedly implicated in the investigation, and could be indicted, according to reports.
Apart from the faltering peace talks, the two leaders were also expected to have discussed the stalemate over the formation of a government in Iraq, more than seven months after an inconclusive parliamentary election.
Hariri was in Saudi Arabia on a family visit on Sunday, but Lebanese officials said he had not been scheduled to join Abdullah and Assad in their discussions.
Mustafa Alani, a regional security expert at the Gulf Research Centre in Dubai, said Lebanon had been the likely focus of the meeting.
"We have a major crisis over the future of the international court on the Hariri case," he said.
Reports that the tribunal would indict Hezbollah members for Rafiq Hariri's murder have raised regional fears of renewed Sunni-Shiite sectarian violence and the collapse of Lebanon's hard-won national unity government.
In Beirut, meanwhile, senior US envoy Jeffrey Feltman on Sunday underlined Washington's firm support for the tribunal.
"We believe that the tribunal should be allowed to complete its work on its own timeline and without outside interference until those responsible ... are brought to justice," Feltman told reporters at Beirut airport.
"I think all of us who represent (UN) Security Council countries also understand that the work of the tribunal at this point will not be stopped," added the US assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs.
While Hariri has offered to play down any indictment linked to his rivals Hezbollah and focus only on the individuals involved, the militant group has demanded the international tribunal be discredited.
The Saudis, strong backers of Hariri, a fellow Sunni, and Syria, which is close to Hezbollah, both have strong influence in Lebanon.
The Riyadh meeting followed a landmark July 30 summit in Baabda, Lebanon between Assad, Abdullah and Hariri aimed at maintaining peace in the deeply divided eastern Mediterranean country.
"I think what they (Abdullah and Assad) have managed so far is to keep a lid on quite alarming rising tensions in the Lebanese community," said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Centre think-tank.
"I don't think it's in the interest of either these two countries or others for Lebanon to erupt into conflagration," he said, adding that they could try to limit the fallout from indictments in the Hariri murder case.

Monday, October 18th 2010
Paul Handley

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