- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Saudi Arabia has abandoned months of behind-the-scenes efforts to resolve Lebanon’s political crisis over the international tribunal investigating the 2005 murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told state-owned Al-Arabiya TV on Wednesday that after talks between King Abdullah and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, seeking to “end the whole Lebanon problem,” reached a dead end, the monarch “washed his hands” of the situation.

The Saudis had been longtime backers of Mr. Hariri and his son Saad, who lost his post as prime minister last week after members of Hezbollah withdrew from his coalition government to protest the tribunal, which is expected to indict top members of the Syrian-supported Shiite militant group.

“It’s dangerous, particularly if it reaches separatism or the division of Lebanon,” Prince Saud said. This would mean the end of Lebanon as a model of peaceful coexistence between religions and ethnicities and different factions.”

Tony Badran, a Lebanon expert at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said that though details of the Saudi-Syrian talks remained opaque, he thought Saudi Arabia had “badly misjudged” the situation.

“It’s clear that if the Saudis had thought that the Syrians were going to behave in a particular way or have certain intentions vis-a-vis the tribunal in Lebanon and stability there or that they could somehow be played off the Iranians or that the Syrians had any capability to enforce such a policy, that has been proven utterly false,” he said.

The tribunal’s chief prosecutor submitted a sealed indictment to the pre-trial judge in The Hague Monday, though no trial is expected to begin before September.

In a speech Sunday, Hezbollah Secretary-General Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, who accuses Israel of Mr. Hariri’s murder, blamed the U.S. for the failure of the Saudi-Syrian gambit.

“We had reached the conclusion that we must withdraw the Lebanese judges, stop Lebanese funding of the tribunal and cancel the agreement between Lebanon and the court,” he said. “And the Saudis told us they, as well as Hariri, agree to the three clauses.”

Mr. Nasrallah claimed that “Hariri traveled to the U.S. to seal the deal but without prior warning said ‘Sorry, we can’t do it.’”

Turkey and Qatar have sought to fill the Saudi vacuum in recent days, and on Tuesday, the foreign ministers of both nations arrived in Lebanon for meetings with Mr. Nasrallah, Saad Hariri and other key political players.

Ibrahim Kalin, chief adviser to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said in an interview that Ankara had been urging Hezbollah and other Lebanese factions to “keep your national-consensus government intact, whatever the results of the tribunal are, because you will need that unity to deal with that result.”

Still, he said the international community needs to explore a variety of options, including a potential delay in the tribunal process, to prevent the crisis from exploding.

“Of course, the truth about the Hariri assassination should come out, but it should come out in a way that will not fracture the Lebanese society,” he said. “Otherwise, in the name of finding the truth, we create a situation in Lebanon where people start killing each other off. And then what truth are you talking about?”