January 31, 2006 | Mideast Monitor

Saudi-Syrian Relations after Hariri

Tony Badran is a PhD candidate in Ancient Near Eastern studies at New York University. He is also a Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, with a particular focus on Lebanese and Syrian politics. He authors the weblog Across the Bay.

If there is one seemingly immutable rule of diplomatic relations in the Middle East, it is that Arab governments vehemently reject outside efforts to censure one of their own. When the UN Security Council first threatened Libya with sanctions for refusing to hand over the Lockerbie bombing suspects in 1992, the Arab League condemned the resolution and praised Libya's “flexibility and restraint.”[1] Arab governments rushed to the defense of Sudan last year when it was threatened with UN sanctions for the bloodbath in Darfur.[2] Saddam Hussein was the exception that proves the rule – most Arab states consented to rolling back his 1990 invasion of Kuwait, but drew the line at ousting him and eventually began calling for an end to UN sanctions on Iraq.

As Syrian President Bashar Assad struggles to escape the UN Security Council's retribution for the February 14 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, however, Arab governments have been unwilling to offer even perfunctory criticism of the inquisition. Their silence reflects popular apathy toward Assad in the Arab world (and its subtle sectarian overtones), a nearly unanimous (if rarely voiced) consensus in official circles that the plot to kill Hariri was hatched within the Syrian regime, and – most importantly – a reluctance to offend the Saudi royal family, which had close ties to the deceased.

As one prominent Arab journalist delicately put it, Riyadh wants to achieve “a smooth transition in Syria from those tainted with the murders in Lebanon to people who can look at a new page.”[3] At a minimum, this would see Assad handing over senior “new guard” officials who plotted the assassination.

At the same time, the Saudis do not want to see the Assad regime collapse (particularly if instability ensues) and are working hard to dissuade it from destabilizing Lebanon and further consecrating its alliance with Iran. While high profile Saudi-Syrian diplomatic exchanges oriented around these considerations project an illusion of harmony, the relationship is fundamentally adversarial. King Abdullah remains adamantly unwilling to grant what the Syrian president most desperately needs – no Saudi official has publicly expressed even mild criticism of the international investigation targeting the Syrian regime.


Syrian relations with the rest of the Arab world have seldom been warm since the 1963 Baathist seizure of power in Damascus. The ruling party's regional hegemonic ambitions are seen as inherently threatening in Cairo, Riyadh and Baghdad, while its longstanding support for rejectionist Palestinian groups clashes with the interests of anyone who stands to gain from regional peace and stability. The late President Hafez Assad's willingness to challenge Israel certainly appealed to the Arab street, but his regime's domination by minority Alawites (an offshoot Islamic sect, viewed as heretical by Sunni Muslims), suppression of Sunni Islamists, and support for Iran's campaign to end Sunni dominance of Iraq during the 1980s did not. The relative apathy of the Arab masses toward the Assad regime's plight today suggests that sectarian loyalties still supercede pan-Arab national identity.

In inter-Arab relations, however, the bottom line is power. In view of Syria's formidable military and intelligence capabilities, other Arab governments have been loath to publicly challenge it. Beneath the stale veneer of Arab diplomatic protocol, however, many were ready to pounce in the face of Syrian weakness. When Sunni Islamist rebels rose up to defy Assad in the late 1970s, Iraq and Jordan covertly aided the rebellion (according to Syrian officials)[4] and publicly denounced his regime as “sectarian.”[5] The late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Radio Cairo publicly derided it with such contemptuous monikers as “the Alawite regime in Damascus” and the “Alawi Baathists.”[6]

The late Assad managed to keep his enemies in the region at bay only by ruthlessly stamping out all internal opposition (leaving them no one to turn against him) and striking back with his own destabilization campaigns.[7] Consequentially, neighboring regimes have not raised the “Alawite question” in over 20 years.

Ironically, the one powerful Arab state that maintained consistently good ties with Syria during this tumultuous period was Saudi Arabia – a puritanical Sunni Islamist monarchy allied with the U.S. The Saudis recognized early on that Baathist Syria “possess[ed] the military power, population, and ideological arsenal to make life difficult” for them and countered this threat (as they have many others) by throwing money at it.[8] By the end of the 1970s, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states were providing Syria with $1.6 billion annually.[9] There was little pretense of broader political solidarity with Damascus – the Saudis pointedly did not expel Syrian Muslim Brotherhood leaders from the kingdom or hesitate to promote Arab-Israeli peace initiatives at Assad's expense.

The Syrian-Saudi relationship matured in the late 1980s, with Riyadh effectively exchanging qualified support for Syrian control over Lebanon for assurances that Saudi interests in the country would be safeguarded. This Saudi-Syrian arrangement received a boost in 1990 when Assad joined the international coalition against Saddam Hussein. Later that year, Syrian troops conquered east Beirut, eliminating the last pockets of resistance to Syrian hegemony.

The Saudi-Syrian Arrangement in Lebanon

Rafiq Hariri
Although the Saudis consented to Syrian control over Lebanon, Assad desperately needed their help rebuilding his war-battered prize and they let it be known in no uncertain terms who they wanted to be prime minister – Rafiq Hariri, a Lebanese Sunni construction magnate who made his multi-billion dollar fortune in the kingdom. Hariri, a close personal friend of the late King Fahd, had assumed Saudi citizenship and even served as the kingdom's chief emissary in Lebanon during the 1980s (Western media outlets typically referred to him as a “Saudi mediator”).[10]

Following Hariri's appointment in 1992, the Saudis lavished money on Syrian-occupied Lebanon. The kingdom not only invested more money in the country than all other Arab states combined ($595 million in 2003, or 70% of total Arab investment),[11] but also provided generous grants, loans, and other forms of economic assistance.[12] Syria, in turn, profited immensely from Lebanon's supercharged reconstruction frenzy. Over one million Syrian laborers were allowed to work in Lebanon without obtaining permits or paying taxes, while Syrian farmers were permitted to flood the country with smuggled (and therefore tariff-free) produce. In addition, Hariri formed lucrative business partnerships with Syrian senior officials and their offspring.[13] In effect, the Saudis were subsidizing an economy that earned the Syrians billions of dollars annually. Direct Saudi aid to Syria was phased out in the 1990s – this new form of subsidization was a much more effective way of buying influence in Damascus.

Too effective, Bashar Assad must have thought as he surveyed potential challenges to his ascension in the late 1990s. In making a select group of Syrian officials fantastically rich – most notably the head of Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon, Maj. Gen. Ghazi Kanaan, Vice-president Abdul Halim Khaddam, and Army Chief of Staff Hikmat Shihabi – Hariri (and, by extension, the Saudis) cultivated a strong bloc of support at the highest levels of the Syrian regime. The fact that Khaddam and Shihabi were the two most powerful Sunnis in the Alawite-dominated regime added to Bashar's concerns.

Not surprisingly, Bashar found it necessary to weaken all three as he took over the levers of power from his ailing father. In 1998, he took control of the “Lebanon file” from Khaddam and forced Shihabi to retire. Kanaan was too powerful to be removed from his post, but Assad acted to strengthen his immediate underling in Beirut, Maj. Gen. Rustom Ghazaleh. In Lebanon, Bashar engineered the election of Gen. Emile Lahoud as president, ousted Hariri, and appointed a new cadre of loyalist security and intelligence chiefs to back Lahoud.

Assad's attempt to govern Lebanon through these loyalists failed miserably. The Lebanese economy soon took a nosedive and Hariri's lavishly funded electoral coalition trounced pro-Lahoud candidates in the Fall 2000 parliamentary elections. Hariri was returned to office later that year, but Lahoud and his allies retained a large share of the cabinet and virtually complete control over the judiciary and security services, enabling them to thwart Hariri at will. For four years, Lebanon's government was hopelessly gridlocked and politically paralyzed, a state of affairs that increasingly strained Syrian-Saudi relations.

Last year, when Syria moved to extend Lahoud's term in violation of the constitution, Hariri and the Saudis quietly encouraged the French and American governments to intercede, culminating in Security Council Resolution 1559. After Syria pushed ahead with the extension, Hariri left office and began coordinating with Christian and Druze opposition figures in hopes of routing the Lahoud camp in the Spring 2005 parliamentary elections. Crossing this red line is apparently what got him killed.

The Saudi Reaction

The Saudis were shocked by the murder of Hariri and deeply skeptical of official Lebanese claims that a radical anti-Saudi Islamist group was responsible for the car bombing (a cover story that seemed intended to offend the Saudis). In keeping with traditional Saudi diplomatic protocol, no direct accusations were made, but the Saudis were clearly intent on bringing Syria to heel.

A series of remarks by Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal to Al-Sharq al-Awsat in the days following the assassination spoke volumes about Saudi policy. He called the cover story promoted by the Lebanese government “ridiculous,” yet repeatedly urged it to perform a “quick investigation” and to “reach results quickly” before the issue is internationalized.[14] The Saudi prince was not suggesting that the Lebanese security apparatus and judiciary were capable of mounting a competent investigation (much less an expeditious one). He was hinting quite plainly that Assad knows who the perpetrators are and must identify them immediately in order to head off a confrontation with the West. From the very beginning, Saudi policy conflated two conflicting pursuits – justice and stability.

While the prospect of a serious international investigation was minimal so long as Assad controlled Lebanon, American and European pressure for a Syrian withdrawal in advance of parliamentary elections mounted quickly after the assassination. In late February, Assad announced that he was redeploying Syrian forces to the mountainous Beqaa Valley, but insisted that a complete Syrian pullout would not be made without a resumption of the peace process.[15] Days later, he flew to Riyadh in hopes of winning Saudi backing for a plan to keep 3,000 troops in eastern Lebanon and maintain control of radar stations there.[16]

He was in for a very rude awakening. Abdullah demanded an explanation for the killing right off the bat. Assad was said to have “all but admitted” to Syrian involvement (while exonerating himself personally),”[17] essentially blaming the assassination on rogue elements in his security apparatus, but was presumably unwilling or unable to promise rectification of the matter. Abdullah flatly rejected his redeployment proposal, telling him that Syria must pull completely out of Lebanon and do it “soon” or else Saudi-Syrian relations would suffer – an ultimatum that Saudi officials promptly leaked to the media.[18] Assad could not promise this, reportedly telling Abdullah that “not everything was up to him.”[19] Abdullah rejected his request that the upcoming Arab summit officially ask Syria to withdraw its forces (which would allow him to portray the pullout as a response to Arab consensus, rather than Western pressure).

March 14 demonstration
The cool reception Assad received in Riyadh doomed his efforts to drum up support in the Arab world and encouraged large numbers of Lebanese Sunnis to demonstrate against the occupation for the first time in fifteen years on the one month anniversary of Hariri's death. On April 3, Assad informed UN envoy Terje Roed-Larsen that Syrian troops would withdraw by month's end.[20]

If Assad was hoping for Saudi support once he committed to pulling out of Lebanon, he was greatly disappointed. Indeed, the Saudis conspicuously avoided commenting on the impending withdrawal. In mid-April, Abdullah and French President Jacques Chirac issued a joint statement in Paris that merely took note of Syria's pledge to pull out of Lebanon by month's end,[21] while calling for free and fair parliamentary elections and an international investigation into Hariri's murder.[22] Days later he flew to Washington, along with Saad Hariri, who had just announced his intention to lead his late father's Future Movement,[23] and issued a similar joint statement with President Bush.[24]

Abdullah stopped in Damascus on his way back from America, but he granted the Syrian president only a brief meeting at the airport before hopping on the plane to Jordan.[25] The crown prince was merely “playing the role of messenger,” one Syrian political analyst observed, relaying Western demands to Damascus.[26] In fact, he was doing far more than this – he was providing Washington and Paris with Arab cover to continue turning the screws on Assad.

After the Security Council established a UN Independent Investigation Commission (UNIIIC) to probe the Hariri assassination, Assad desperately implored the Saudis to speak out against it, or at least help him establish a direct channel of communication with Washington. He reportedly offered to endorse Abdullah's Arab-Israeli peace initiative, which the Syrians had sabotaged at the 2002 Arab summit in Beirut,[27] but the crown prince (now king) remained unwilling to intercede. Although pro-Saudi media outlets portrayed Abdullah as offering genuine counsel to Assad and seeking to head off a confrontation between Damascus and Washington, his “advice” was to capitulate fully to the American and French in Lebanon (which conveniently also served Saudi interests) and cooperate fully with an investigation that pointed the finger exclusively at Syria. Abdullah and Assad were both well aware that following this advice to the letter would be political suicide.

Bashar also tried reaching out to Egypt, floating the idea of reviving the peace process in a summit with President Mubarak at Sharm al-Sheikh,[28] but to no avail – the Americans were not interested and the Egyptians were unwilling to throw their weight behind it.

The electoral victory of the so-called March 14 coalition (led by Saad Hariri and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt) led to the formation of a new Lebanese cabinet led by Fouad Siniora (a surrogate for Hariri, who is waiting until Lahoud is gone before assuming the premiership). The new administration was not just willing to cooperate fully with the UNIIIC, but was eager to defer to him completely (no one in the government is comfortable being seen as responsible for investigating the Syrians).

The Mehlis Probe

Saad Hariri
On October 20, the head of the UNIIIC, Detlev Mehlis, presented an interim report to the Security Council implicating high-ranking Syrian officials, most notably Assad's brother, Maher, and brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, the chief of Syrian military intelligence. Although the Saudis pointedly avoided commenting on the report, two days after its release Saad Hariri gave a televised speech praising it from the Saudi city of Jeddah.[29] Since Saad is even closer to the Saudis than his father (he grew up in the kingdom), his public statements on Syria are often interpreted by Lebanese political analysts as barometric readings of Saudi sentiments.

The report resulted in the Security Council's unanimous approval of Resolution 1636, which demanded the Syrians cooperate unconditionally with the probe or risk facing “further action.” Mehlis quickly put 1636 to the test by asking to question Shawkat and five other senior Syrian officials at his headquarters in Lebanon. The Syrians balked (even after being offered Vienna or Geneva as alternate venues),[30] prompting Mehlis to warn that he would formally declare Syria in breach of UNSCR 1636.

After spurning repeated Syrian requests for Saudi mediation, Abdullah finally stepped in, dispatching Prince Bandar bin Sultan, chief of his newly formed National Security Council, to Damascus and Paris.[31] Bandar's mission was not to help the Syrians, but to prevent them from halting all cooperation with Mehlis. The Saudis preferred piecemeal Syrian cooperation with the investigation over outright defiance of the Security Council, which might have had unpredictable consequences and would have brought Mehlis no closer to identifying Hariri's assassins. Bandar brokered an agreement whereby the Syrians sent five officials (everyone but Shawkat) for questioning in Vienna on the condition that none would be arrested during their stay. Abdullah publicly extolled Bandar's role in brokering the compromise as an expression of Saudi concern for the “interests of all Arab countries.”[32]

However, the Saudis remained as unwilling as ever to help Assad broker a deal with the West. On the sidelines of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) summit in Mecca on December 7, Saud al-Faisal was asked about the threats that “Islamic states like Syria” are being subjected to and how to confront them. “If a particular state adopts a reckless policy and causes trouble, then runs to the Islamic states and asks them to solve these problems, this is not solidarity,” he replied. “There has to be consultation about policies that lead the Islamic world into trouble.”[33]

Moreover, speculation began to mount that the Saudis were working to undermine Assad's grip on power by encouraging increasingly provocative anti-Syrian initiatives by Hariri and Jumblatt. Khaddam and Shihabi turned up over the summer in Paris (the home away from home for Lebanese politicians fearing assassination) and began meeting frequently with Lebanese and French officials.[34] It is difficult to imagine that Hariri would have taken such provocative steps to undermine Assad if the Saudis wanted him to desist. The Saudis had a price for putting a stop to the plotting in Paris – Assad must come clean about Syrian involvement in the assassination (assuming he can credibly maintain his own innocence) and call a halt to his destabilization campaign in Lebanon.

The Moussa Initiative

Amr Moussa
Although most Arab leaders readily deferred to the Saudis on Syria, Mubarak began pursuing an independent path. Egyptian discomfort with the Saudi line is partly fueled by elementary balance of power logic – in casting himself as the primary intermediary between Syria and the West, Abdullah usurped a role that Mubarak envisions for himself. It also reflected concerns that the collapse of Syria's “hereditary republic” would discredit Mubarak's efforts to promote his own son's ascension and almost certainly be followed by the return of the Muslim Brotherhood to political life in Damascus, strengthening the Egyptian branch of the movement – Mubarak's most powerful domestic political challenger.

Rather than act through normal diplomatic channels, Mubarak entrusted Amr Moussa, the secretary-general of the Arab League and former Egyptian foreign minister, to combat Syrian isolation. In late November, Moussa declared that Syria must not be isolated and insisted that sanctions should only be imposed if there is solid proof of its involvement in Hariri's murder (i.e. not merely for failure to cooperate with the probe).[35]

Emboldened by signs of long-awaited Egyptian support, Assad grew more defiant. On December 11, he ominously warned the international community that imposing sanctions on Syria would destabilize the region.[36] The following day, Gibran Tueni, editor of the leading Lebanese daily al-Nahar and a recently elected MP (on the Hariri list in Beirut) was assassinated shortly after returning to the country from a long sojourn in Paris. “It looks as if the destabilization has started,” Jumblatt commented afterwards,[37] echoing the suspicions of most Lebanese.

As the war of words between Syria and the March 14 coalition escalated, Moussa suddenly took center stage, warning that sinister hands were behind the assassinations, with the aim of widening the rift between Syria and Lebanon – a remark that parroted official Syrian propaganda.[38] According to media reports, as well as statements by Lebanese politicians, Moussa then put forward a proposal whereby Syria agreed (in effect) to halt its destabilization campaign in exchange for an end to anti-Syrian criticism and accusations by the March 14 coalition leaders and their media outlets.[39]

He did not have to wait long for an answer. In a televised interview from Saudi Arabia, Hariri vowed that there will be no “deals” with the Syrians. “At the end of the day, they are swimming by themselves in a raging sea . . . Now they will reap what they have sowed.”[40]

Hariri's sudden eruption of belligerence was seen by some in Lebanon as an indication of Saudi displeasure with the Moussa initiative.[41] The Egyptian diplomat quickly backtracked, claiming that he had was not carrying any particular proposal[42] and would never dream of “turning the page of the investigation in return for promises of calming things down.”[43]

But Moussa also tried to interfere in Syria's favor at the GCC summit in Abu Dhabi after news leaked that it was preparing to issue a statement criticizing Syria's lack of cooperation with the Mehlis probe.[44] According to the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Qabas,

    The summit received a memo from Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa, which Gulf sources have described as 'insolent,' criticizing the Gulf position on Syria and accusations of murdering Hariri . . . An agreement was reached to ignore Amr Moussa's memo completely.”[45]

Nevertheless, Egypt's intervention helped ease Syria's diplomatic isolation. Owing to Russian and Chinese objections, UNSCR 1644 failed to explicitly threaten Syria with sanctions and merely “took note” of Lebanese requests to broaden the scope of the UNIIIC to include other assassinations and to establish an international tribunal.

As he has done so often in the past, however, Assad overplayed his hand. The Syrians escalated their campaign to undermine the Siniora cabinet, persuading Hezbollah and Amal to boycott cabinet meetings. Syrian efforts to undermine the UNIIIC also intensified. Foreign Minister Farouq al-Sharaa declared that Mehlis' successor should sign a protocol of cooperation with Syria (a demand that Mehlis had previously rejected). Meanwhile, a hitherto unknown group calling itself the “Strugglers for the Unity and Freedom of al-Sham” took credit for Tueni's murder and threatened to kill whoever succeeds Mehlis.[46] Syrian audacity peaked with Sharaa accusing the late Hariri of fabricating the allegation that he was threatened by Assad.[47]

The Khaddam Revelations

Abdul Halim Khaddam
It was in this context that Khaddam suddenly jumped into the spotlight. Appearing in a lengthy interview with Al-Arabiya from Paris two days after Sharaa's remarks, the former vice-president said that Assad had threatened Hariri on several occasions, including once in front of what he termed “junior officers” (a reference to Ghazaleh and the chief of Syrian military intelligence in Beirut, Muhammad Khallouf).[48] He accused Ghazaleh of inciting Assad against Hariri, but emphasized that it was impossible for any officer in Syria “to make such a decision [as to kill Hariri] on their own,” without approval from the president.[49]

In the days that followed, Khaddam went even further, expressing his “deep conviction” that Assad had ordered the assassination,[50] and declaring that the Syrian regime was incapable of reform and should be brought down.[51] Khaddam also made overtures to the Syrian opposition, including the Muslim Brotherhood.[52] The leader of the brotherhood, Ali Sadreddine al-Bayanouni, told the Financial Times that he was willing to “work for political transition in Syria with former regime officials who are ready to commit themselves to democratic change.”[53]

Khaddam's bombshells greatly enflamed anti-Syrian fervor in Lebanon. Jumblatt, who had begun openly calling for Assad's downfall since the assassination of Tueni, now began calling for foreign assistance to achieve that goal, telling the Washington Post that the Americans should “do the same thing in Syria” as they did in Iraq.[54]

Since Saudi financed media outlets were lining up to broadcast Khaddam's revelations during the first week of January, many Lebanese and Syrian political analysts saw the revelations as a Saudi-French initiative designed to intimidate Assad and bolster the investigation.[55] The UNIIIC quickly asked to interview Assad and Sharaa, a request that Syrian officials flatly rejected.[56]

Behind this tough facade, however, Assad was frantically appealing to the Saudis to put a stop to Khaddam's media campaign and mediate a compromise with the UNIIIC that would spare him the indignity of having to testify before the commission.[57] This time, Abdullah had very explicit preconditions for his intercession ­ reportedly that Syria agree to formally demarcate its border with Lebanon and exchange embassies.[58] Assad reportedly agreed to the concessions in a phone call with Abdullah on January 5. The following day, Abdullah's interior ministry instructed Saudi-financed media outlets to “stop focusing” on the former vice-president.[59] Al-Hayat pulled a lengthy interview with Khaddam that it had announced would appear in its January 7 issue, while the satellite channel MBC chose not to air a lengthy interview it had just finished taping. Al-Arabiya cancelled a follow-up interview with Khaddam.

Saudi officials began pressing their Lebanese allies to tone down their rhetoric. “What's sought is not to bring down the Syrian regime. Not even the U.S. and France are calling for that,” an unidentified Saudi official explained to UPI. “What's sought is to uncover who killed Rafiq Hariri and bring them to justice.”[60] Al-Arabiya cancelled an interview with Jumblatt.[61]

Assad arrived in Jeddah on January 8. Although details of the talks were sketchy, Abdullah reportedly expressed support for an arrangement whereby Assad answers the commission's questions in writing[62] or sends someone in his place who is acceptable to both sides.[63] “But at least answer their questions,” he told the Syrian president.[64]

News of the Saudi mediation effort precipitated a barrage of American and French statements ruling out any such compromises. Chirac declared flatly that “United Nations resolutions must be implemented and respected in full,”[65] while US Secretary of State Rice stated that the United States opposes “any deals or compromises” with Damascus that would undermine the investigation, a position echoed by other senior American officials.[66]

Interestingly, the Saudis quickly denied that they were in favor of such a deal. Saud al-Faisal flew to Paris to meet with Chirac and told reporters that the Jeddah meeting was in no way aimed at helping Assad avoid questioning by UN investigators, but was intended to convince him to cooperate with the investigation and reduce Syrian-Lebanese tensions.[67] According to one report, Saudi officials told the Bush administration that Assad's visit was a matter of “political courtesy.”[68] As one Lebanese columnist put it, the Saudis were anticipating negative international and Lebanese reaction to the proposals – they just wanted rejection to come from the West, not Riyadh, so that Abdullah could claim to have done all he could to help Assad.[69]

Abdallah was much more concerned with advancing a second track of the Syrian-Saudi negotiations pertaining specifically to Lebanon. During his meeting with Abdullah, Assad presented a series of “proposals,” apparently backed by the Egyptians, to reduce tensions with Lebanon, such as reactivation of their bilateral security committee, coordination on foreign policy, and an end to the Lebanese “media campaign” and “inflammatory statements by politicians.”[70] When news of the proposals leaked, Lebanese officials flatly rejected them, while Saudi and Egyptians officials denying ever supporting them.[71]

In mid-January, however, the Saudis put forth a proposal, backed by Egypt, to ease tensions between Syria and Lebanon that appeared to embody the same principles. “Now it is in the hands of both countries and they will let us know,” Saud al-Faisal told the Financial Times.[72] According to one Lebanese columnist, the old set of proposals was reformulated “with new ideas that do not eliminate its essence, but simply rearranges the priorities in a way that takes into consideration official Lebanese objections.”[73]

This latest initiative is not just for show – the Saudis do want Lebanon to reach some sort of accomodation with Syria, if only to cool things down in the short term. However, there are few signs that they are succeeding. While many Lebanese support the normalization of diplomatic relations with Syria (e.g. exchange of embassies, border demarcation), any accord that even hints at a compromise of Lebanese sovereignty (e.g. “coordination” in security or foreign policy) or civil liberties (e.g. a “media truce”) is essentially dead in the water given the state of public opinion. Leaders of the March 14 coalition are so terrified of being assassinated by the Syrians that they rarely leave their fortified compounds, but they are in no mood to compromise as long as the men who plotted Hariri's assassination are directing Syrian policy and interfering in Lebanese affairs. During his visit to Washington last month, Hariri reportedly sought (and received) assurances that there will be no compromise in the investigation of his father's murder.

Assad's growing isolation has led him to cement his position as Iran's ally in the axis of rejectionist forces in the region, underscored by Iranian President Ahmadinejad's visit to Damascus on January 19 to meet with Syrian officials and the heads of Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad.[74] Assad apparently hopes that his alignment with Iran will encourage the Security Council to back off on the investigation, or at least pressure the Saudis into speaking out against it.

While Assad's drift toward Iran has clearly unnerved officials in Riyadh, who are increasingly alarmed by Tehran's nuclear ambitions and growing influence in Iraq, the Saudis remain unwilling to publicly question the integrity of the investigation. Assad knows that if anyone in the Arab world can speak freely without fear of jeopardizing their ties with Washington, it is the Saudis – their refusal to speak up must strike him as inherently adversarial. With prospects for a substantive Saudi-mediated truce by his Lebanese enemies very limited, he has little incentive to halt his alignment with Iran. Beneath the veneer of diplomatic cordiality that both sides have an interest in maintaining, Saudi-Syrian relations are likely to remain contentious for the foreseeable future.


  [1] “Arabs Line Up with Libya in Condemning U.N. Resolution,” The Associated Press, 1 April 1992. See also “Sanctions Against Libya Prompt Popular Backlash,” The Christian Science Monitor, 16 April 1992.
  [2] “Arabs rally to Sudan as world condemns it over Darfur,” The Associated Press, 27 July 2004.
  [3] Salamah Nemat, the Washington bureau chief of Al-Hayat, quoted in “An Exiled Assad Plans a Return to Syria,” The New York Sun, 29 September 2005.
  [4] “Syrian rebellion simmers down but tensions endure,” The New York Times, 24 March 1982.
  [5] For Jordanian and Iraqi denunciations of Assad's sectarianism, see “Arabs see Syria as errant brother,” Christian Science Monitor, 2 March 1981, and “Kidnapping of diplomat fuels Jordan-Syria tensions,” The Christian Science Monitor, 10 February 1981.
  [6] “Assad on the Spot,” Newsweek, 21 June 1976; “President Sadat's 26th July Speech at Alexandria University,” BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, 28 July 1979. See also “Sadat Says Syria Will Be Next Afghanistan,” The Associated Press, 19 October 1980.
  [7] See “Arabs Prepare for Summit; Moderates Defy Syrian Opposition to Talks Sought by PLO, Jordan,” The Washington Post, 6 August 1985; “U.S. Remains Wary Despite Syrian Aid,” The New York Times, 2 July 1985.
  [8] Fouad Ajami, “Stress in the Arab Triangle” Foreign Policy (Winter 1977), p. 99.
  [9] “If Syrians Believe Official Rhetoric, Leaders Seemingly Discount It,” The Washington Post, 2 November 1980.
  [10] See, for example, “Saudi mediator tries to arrange talks on Lebanon crisis,” The Financial Times, 13 February 1984.
  [11] “Inter-Arab investment rises,” The Daily Star, 24 June 2004. The article cites statistics from the Report on Investment Climate in Arab Countries, 2004, published by the Inter-Arab Investment Guarantee Corporation. Saudi Arabia also remained the largest source of foreign investment in Syria. Precise figures are difficult to obtain, but the Syrian government has acknowledged that Saudi investments outstrip those of any other country. See Al-Baath (Damascus), 28 November 2000.
  [12] Saudi Arabia was the largest contributor at the November 2002 Paris II donor conference, providing $700 million in soft loans.
  [13] Gary C. Gambill, Syria after Lebanon: Hooked on Lebanon, Middle East Quarterly Vol. XII, No. 4 (Fall 2005).
  [14] Al-Sharq al-Awsat, 16 February 2005, 17 February 2005, and 22 February 2005.
  [15] “It will only happen if we obtain serious guarantees. In one word: peace,” Assad told the Italian newspaper La Repubblica. See “Report: Syrian president says Washington should realize Damascus is essential for peace in the Middle East,” The Associated Press, 28 February 2005.
  [16] “Saudi officials tell Assad to start full withdrawal soon or face isolation,” The Associated Press, 3 March 2005.
  [17] Michael Young, What If Syria Is Guilty?, TCS Daily, 31 August 2005.
  [18] “Arab Leaders Urge Syria to Leave Lebanon,” The Associated Press, 4 March 2005. See also “Saudi ruler demands rapid Syrian withdrawal,” The Daily Star, 4 March 2005.
  [19] “Saudi ruler demands rapid Syrian withdrawal,” The Daily Star, 4 March 2005.
  [20] “Syria to meet US deadline for pullout of troops and agents from Lebanon,” The Guardian, 4 April 2005. See also Al-Sharq al-Awsat, 3 April 2005. Before heading to Damascus, Larsen met with Mubarak. He then told the press that he carried no warnings for Damascus despite the pressure for a specific timetable for withdrawal before May.
  [21] Columnist Fouad Matar speculated that the formulation “taking note,” as opposed to “welcoming,” was “likely the desire of Crown Prince Abdullah.” Al-Sharq al-Awsat, 19 April 2005.
  [22] “Saudi Arabia and France shower each other with praise,” The Daily Star, 15 April 2005.
  [23] “Saudi-U.S. talks focus on peace and oil prices,” The Daily Star, 25 April 2005.
  [24] Al-Sharq al-Awsat, 26 April 2005.
  [25] “Abdullah Meets With Arab Leaders, Pushes for Peace,” Arab News, 8 May 2005.
  [26] Ahmad Muwaffaq Zeidan, in al-Quds al-Arabi. See “Riyadh's displeasure with Damascus,” Mideast Mirror, 16 June 2005.
  [27] Al-Sharq al-Awsat , 8 May 2005. On Syria's sabotage of Abdullah's initiative, see Gary C. Gambill, Syria and the Saudi Peace Initiative, Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, Vol. 4, No. 3 (March/April 2002).
  [28] Al-Sharq al-Awsat, 13 May 2005.
  [29] “Son of Slain Lebanese Seeks a Special Tribunal,” The New York Times, 24 October 2005.
  [30] Syria wanted the officials be questioned either at the Arab League's headquarters in Cairo or at the UNDOF headquarters in the Golan. It also wanted Mehlis to sign a “protocol of cooperation” before allowing anyone to be interviewed.
  [31] Al-Hayat, 20 November 2005; Al-Sharq al-Awsat, 22 November 2005. The latter article quoted anonymous French sources as saying that France was working with “anyone it considers as having influence in Damascus” to get the regime to cooperate, as cooperation was Syria's “only option.”
  [32] Al-Hayat and Al-Sharq al-Awsat, 27 November 2005.
  [33] Al-Mustaqbal, 8 December 2005.
  [34] See Al-Siyassah (Kuwait), 4 October 2005. The article mentions Khaddam and Shihabi being in Paris and plotting to lead a transitional regime in Syria with Khaddam as president. It also mentions the regime's fear that Khaddam might spill the beans to the French.
  [35] “Syria says guarantee of no arrest for five officers be questioned in UN headquarters in Vienna,” The Daily Star, 26 November 2005.
  [36] “The Middle East is the heart of the world, and Syria is the heart of the Middle East,” he told Russian state television. “If the situation in Syria and Iraq isn't good, the whole region will become unstable, and the entire world will pay for that.” See “Syrian president warns sanctions against Syria will destabilize world,” The Associated Press, 11 December 2005.
  [37] LBCI TV (Beirut), 12 December 2005.
  [38] “Mubarak backs Lebanon,” The Daily Star, 16 December 2005.
  [39] Al-Mustaqbal, 22 December, 2005. Al-Balad, 21 December 2005. For more on the specifics of the Egyptian proposal, see Al-Qabas, 25 December 2005. According to Al-Qabas, the proposal also included establishing a joint committee to negotiate all matters of interest between the two countries now and the establishment of a hotline between Siniora and Bashar
  [40] Al-Arabiya TV, 22 December 2005.
  [41] Ali al-Amin mentioned this in his column in Al-Balad, 23 December 2005. Al-Amin highlighted specific possible points of disagreement: deflating the investigation into Hariri's murder, the border demarcation and the status of Shebaa, and establishing the notion that a third party was behind the assassinations in Lebanon.
  [42] Moussa said he was on a personal mission “transmitting different points of view.” See “Syria 'terrorising' Arab regimes: Lebanese Druze leader,” Agence France Presse, 23 December 2005.
  [43] Al-Mustaqbal, 26 December 2005.
  [44] Al-Mustaqbal, 19 December 2005.
  [45] Al-Qabas, 19 December 2005.
  [46] “New Hariri probe head faces death threat,” The Associated Press, 28 December, 2005.
  [47] Al-Mustaqbal, 29 December 2005.
  [48] Al-Arabiya TV, 30 December, 2005. See also the interview he gave to Christopher Dickey of Newsweek (web exclusive), 5 January, 2005. Khaddam recounted how Assad related to him what he said to Hariri: “You are working against Syria. You are working to bring a new president . . . You should know that I am the decision maker. Whoever works against my will, I will crush him.”
  [49] Khaddam repeated this charge in another interview, one among many, with Al-Sharq al-Awsat: “The problem is that responsibility in the assassination of Hariri cannot stop at a certain level because a decision of such as murdering Prime Minister Hariri cannot take place without the president's knowledge. The decision emanates from the top of the pyramid.” Al-Sharq al-Awsat, 6 January 2006.
  [50] Interview with Jean-Pierre Elkabbach on Europe 1, 10 January 2006. See also, “Syrian former VP 'convinced' Assad ordered Hariri killing,” Agence France Presse, 10 January 2006.
  [51] Al-Sharq al-Awsat, 6 January 2006.
  [52] Michael Young, “From Khaddam, a disquieting Saudi warning,” The Daily Star, 5 January 2006. “Playing communal politics, as the Syrians have done so recklessly in Lebanon of late, will only invite a communal backlash in Syria. Abdel-Halim Khaddam if just one instrument in that counterattack; more can easily be found if needed. The Syrians should remember that while Lebanon is vulnerable to sectarianism, it also has the means to absorb its worst repercussions. But does Syria? From Paris, Khaddam impertinently tossed that disturbing question Assad's way.”
  [53] “Muslim Brotherhood leader offers support to Syrian defector,” The Financial Times, 6 January 2006.
  [54] David Ignatius, “Mob war in the Mideast,” The Washington Post, 4 January 2006. A few days later he said that the Syrian dictatorship “can only be removed with international help.” See “Saudi urges improvement to stricken Syria-Lebanon ties,” Agence France Presse, 8 January 2006.
  [55] Michael Young, “From Khaddam, a disquieting Saudi warning,” The Daily Star, 5 January 2006. Syrian commentator Ammar Abdulhamid put it well: “The timing [of Khaddam's revelation] at this stage seems related . . . to the way the ruling clique was behaving since the publication of the [second Mehlis report]. There was just too much foolishness and hubris, and the regime seemed poised to heat up the situation along the Lebanese-Israeli borders again. So, the Saudis and the French, who clearly don't want to see this kind of escalation taking place, might have had some hand in convincing him to go public at this stage.” See Massoud A. Derhally, “Syria's Khaddam Bombshell,” Arabian Business, 8 January 2006.
  [56] “Syrian leader suggests he will reject UN interview on Rafik Hariri's death,” The Associated Press, 7 January 2006.
  [57] Al-Quds al-Arabi , 7 January 2006.
  [58] Rajeh Khoury, Al-Nahar, 13 January, 2006.
  [59] Al-Quds al-Arabi 7 January, 2006.
  [60] Claude Salhani, “Assad in a bind,” United Press International, 9 January 2006. A virtually identical Saudi statement was delivered to Agence France Presse. See “Saudi urges improvement to stricken Syria-Lebanon ties,” Agence France Presse, 8 January 2006.
  [61] Al-Mustaqbal, 9 January 2006.
  [62] “Saudi Arabia, Egypt seeking solution to Syria crisis,” United Press International, 11 January 2006.
  [63] Claude Salhani, “Assad in a bind,” United Press International, 9 January 2006.
  [64] Ibid.
  [65] “Syria can no longer act with impunity in Lebanon: Chirac,” Agence France Presse, 10 January 2006.
  [66] Rice also threatened Security Council action if the Syrians do not cooperate fully and unconditionally with the inquiry and expressed concern about “Syria's destabilizing behavior and sponsorship of terrorism.” See “Rice Threatens Syria With U.N. Action,” The Baltimore Sun, 11 January 2006. During a visit to Lebanon, Undersecretary of State David Welch also rejected any “deals or compromises” that would relieve Syria of its obligation to cooperate, adding that the investigation must be taken to its “ultimate conclusions” (widely interpreted in Lebanon as an indication that Assad will not be spared indictment for political reasons). See “Syria furious as US warns of new UN action,” Agence France Presse, 14 January 2006.
  [67] Al-Hayat, 10 January 2006. “Everyone in the Arab world is worried about the deterioration of the situation. Enough problems in the Middle East, we don't want a new problem that would threaten the security of the Arab region,” he added.
  [68] Al-Nahar, 12 January 2006.
  [69] Asaad Haydar, Al-Mustaqbal, 15 January 2006.
  [70] See Rajeh al-Khoury's and Nicholas Nassif's articles in Al-Nahar, 13 January 2006, for more on the Syrian conditions. See also Al-Hayat, 14 January 2006.
  [71] L'Orient-Le Jour (Beirut), 13 January 2006.
  [72] “Saudis in plan to ease tension between Syria and Lebanon,” The Financial Times, 17 January 2005.
  [73] Ali al-Amin, Al-Balad, 27 January 2006.
  [74] For more on Syrian-Iranian relations, see Michael Young, Syria and Iran: The Perils of a Radical Bond, TCS Daily, 24 January 2006.
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