Al-Ahram Weekly Online   15 - 21 October 2009
Issue No. 968
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A long-awaited visit

By way of Saudi King Abdullah's trip to Syria, the proverbial hatchet has been buried between the two countries, Bassel Oudat reports from Damascus

President Al-Assad and King Abdullah

Saudi King Abdullah used to come to Damascus often when he was still a crown prince, but he stopped after the assassination of Rafik Al-Hariri in 2005. This is why his recent arrival to Damascus caused considerable excitement among Arab politicians and in the media.

Syrian sources said that the talks between President Bashar Al-Assad and King Abdullah covered regional and bilateral issues. The two men discussed the formation of the Lebanese government, Syrian-Iranian ties, Iraq, Palestine, and the Arab-Israeli peace process.

A final communiqué extolled the virtues of cooperation, called for the formation of a national unity government in Lebanon, demanded a cessation of Israel's repressive measures in the occupied Arab territories, and voiced hope for stability in Iraq and Yemen.

Syrian officials believe this marks the end of Syria's isolation for the past four years. They expect a new phase of cordial inter-Arab relations to begin, one in which Syria and Saudi Arabia would be friends once more. The impression one gets from statements by Syrian and Saudi officials is that the visit was a regional breakthrough.

The Saudi final communiqué differed a bit from the Syrian counterpart. When quizzed about the difference, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Muallim said the wording may be different, but the content is the same.

After three long sessions of one-on-one talks, Abdullah and Al-Assad reached a "common understanding" on Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq and Iran, Al-Muallim said.

The visit definitely defused tensions between the two countries, and may usher in a new regional climate. Observers expect the visit to move things forward in Lebanon and to clarify matters concerning Iran. Some say that much-awaited Palestinian rapprochement may be a result.

Because the two countries have been at odds over Lebanon, many Lebanese were pleased that the final communiqué called for the formation of a national unity government. Lebanese affairs have strained relations between Syria and Saudi Arabia over the past five years. Now it seems that the two leaders want to see obstacles to the formation of a new Lebanese government removed.

Syrian-Saudi relations deteriorated following the assassination of Al-Hariri in 2005. Al-Hariri was a symbol of Saudi influence in Lebanon and his friends wasted no time in accusing Damascus of complicity in his killing. Riyadh supported calls by Western countries on Syria to end 29 years of its presence in Lebanon. The Saudis were also displeased with the role Hizbullah -- an ally of both Syria and Iran -- was playing in Lebanon.

In 2006, Saudi Arabia criticised Hizbullah for starting a war with Israel, a conflict that led to the destruction of Lebanon's infrastructure and the death of 1,000 Lebanese. Likewise, Saudi Arabia slammed Hamas, another ally of Syria, for starting a war in Gaza that took the lives of 1,000 Palestinians. In addition, Riyadh held Damascus partially responsible for the collapse of agreements between Hamas and Fatah.

The Saudis have made no secret of their concern over Syria's alliance with the Iranians. Riyadh is particularly concerned over the growing influence of Tehran in the region. In remarks following the talks, Bothayna Shaaban, media and political advisor to the Syrian president, said that cooperation with Iran is not going to be hindered by improved ties with the Saudis.

"The coordination between Syria and Saudi Arabia will be a welcome addition to the coordination Syria is already having with Turkey and Iran. It is all part of the effort to create an Arab-Islamic regional turf," Shaaban stated.

Syrian Foreign Minister Al-Muallim said that the two leaders reviewed relations with the US administration and were "not in disagreement" in that regard.

Syrian political analyst Omar Kosh told Al-Ahram Weekly that the visit was unlikely to improve Syrian- US relations, however. "I do not think that the visit did much for the improvement of Syrian-US ties, simply because the Syrian-US relation came to an impasse after the second visit by a US military and security delegation to Damascus last August."

Despite the considerable joy of Syrian officials at the visit, they tended to play down any immediate effect. "Our leaders are not wizards," Al-Muallim quipped. Other officials suggested that it was too early for the visit to bear fruit.

In the two versions available of the final communiqué, there is a clear commitment to defusing Arab tensions, a reference perhaps to Syrian-Egyptian relations. Syrian officials hope that King Abdullah will persuade the Egyptians to improve ties with Damascus.

Syrian-Egyptian relations have been strained for nearly four years. President Hosni Mubarak stayed away from the Damascus Arab summit of 2007. A quickly arranged reconciliation meeting between Al-Assad and Mubarak took place last January as part of a mini-summit between Qatar, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria in Kuwait. This produced no breakthrough. Neither did a four-way summit in Riyadh last March between the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Syria and Egypt.

A key figure in Syria's Baath Party, Fayez Ezzeddin, told the Weekly that the Syrian-Saudi meeting would set the stage for inter-Arab reconciliation. His views are shared by other Arab sources that predict a rapprochement between Syria and some Arab countries before the end of the year. The priority, sources say, will be Syrian-Lebanese and Syrian-Egyptian rapprochement.

The Saudis, meanwhile, expect Syria to turn its rhetoric into deeds that would put the minds of regional and international powers at ease.

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