Ahead, a Syrian-Saudi obstacle course


The Syrian-Saudi initiative is like the abominable snowman. Some people claim to have seen it; some can even describe it. But proceed to the frozen wastelands where the creature was supposedly spotted last, and you only find snow, nothing more substantial.

There is no doubt that the Syrians and the Saudis are exchanging ideas on a new modus vivendi in Lebanon. We know this from the fact that an unidentified American official took the trouble last week, through the Saudi-owned daily Al-Hayat, to warn against any steps the two countries might take to undermine the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. But what are the particulars of their discussions?

Here and there we will get useful sound-bites. An Arabic diplomatic source told The Daily Star, in remarks published Wednesday, that Damascus and Riyadh were discussing a package deal. The pact would encompass the special tribunal, Syrian arrest warrants against Lebanese considered close to Prime Minister Saad Hariri, as well as a possible change in government with Hariri remaining in office, and an overhaul of Lebanon’s security and judicial hierarchies.

This seems awfully close to a Syrian interpretation of the talks to be entirely convincing. Here is why. Most revealing is the last thought, namely transformation of the security services and the judiciary. Even with a glass eye one can easily discern which party controls the major security posts. It is equally useful to recall that the Syrians have played a crucial role in blocking administrative and diplomatic appointments during the past year. The reality is that any changes in the military and in the major security agencies – the top leadership posts of the army and military intelligence, as well as of the General Security directorate, airport security, and so on – would principally affect individuals close to Hizbullah. And for Syria and Saudi Arabia to take from Hizbullah, Iran would first have to approve.

In public, pro-Syrian Lebanese spokesmen offer a slightly different reading. They will agree that a change in government is in the air, but will not admit to any divergences with Hizbullah. They will suggest that the political momentum is in Syria’s and Hizbullah’s favor, and that the government and the security services and other parts of the public administration must reflect this balance. Some will go so far as to hint that a complete revamping of the Lebanese political system is needed, one which grants the Shiite community more power.

Such ideas do not a Syrian-Saudi agreement make. In fact quite the contrary. Whatever Damascus and Riyadh consent to will not only have to pass Iranian muster, but also gain American approval. And if there are any doubts about the impediments, the deputy secretary of the Iranian Supreme National Security Council, Ali Bagheri, remarked Monday in Damascus that it was Hizbullah that would decide how to react to indictments issued by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. This seemed a careful way of stating that the Syrians and Saudis would be given latitude to cripple the tribunal, but that Tehran’s patience had limits.

Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, is engaged in a delicate balancing act. He is happy to gain from Saudi-Iranian tensions, but he also needs to ensure that he will not alienate either side. Assad is impatient to damage the special tribunal’s legitimacy, since he doesn’t want the institution to weaken Hizbullah or point the finger at Syrian officials. But he cannot allow Hizbullah to humiliate Hariri, as it did in May 2008, as this would harm Assad’s relationship with the Saudis, deny Syria the valuable Lebanese Sunni card it has spent years reclaiming, and only reinforce Iran’s role as the dominant actor in Beirut.

Assad probably believes that the Saudis will push Hariri some of the way, which is why he has reportedly urged them to approve measures to scuttle Lebanese cooperation with the tribunal. However, many of the recent leaks indicating that Hariri would soon agree to renounce the tribunal were really no more than disinformation, efforts to pressure the prime minister into bending in Syria’s direction. Yet for all these pressures, the rickety Hariri government remains standing and Syria’s allies have not yet seriously threatened to withdraw.

Then there is the United States. The Syrians and Saudis must not only consider how Iran views their deliberations, but also the way Washington will respond. Assad’s expectations for a breakthrough on the Syrian-Israeli front may be low, but that doesn’t mean the Syrian president can be reckless with regard to the Obama administration or Israel. For Assad, repairing Syria’s ties with Washington is necessary to provide him with options beyond his profitable, but also frequently demeaning and constraining, alliance with Iran. And Damascus needs to protect itself against the Israelis if they come to view Hizbullah as a strategic menace, leading to a Lebanon war that draws in Syria.

If Assad pushes too hard against the tribunal, to Hizbullah’s advantage, both the United States and Israel will begin fretting. Washington will not readily give up on an institution that might soon accuse Hizbullah (which is different than saying that the Americans are manipulating the indictments). Israel, in turn, will not look kindly on Lebanese measures shielding the party from a trial, thereby implicitly strengthening its military capacity, therefore Iran’s.

Here is the dizzyingly complicated context for the Syrian-Saudi talks, and such complexity seems a good reason to lower expectations about a breakthrough anytime soon. For what we have now are negotiations between two parties that have significant sway over Lebanese affairs, but not necessarily the final say. Whatever decisions they reach must still clear several hurdles, not one of which will be easy.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR and author of “The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon’s Life Struggle” (Simon & Schuster).

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