Beirut will host a rare summit of regional leaders this weekend–all the more remarkable for having been organized on very short notice.
There are reports that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will be joined by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani. Erdogan and Ahmadinejad are apparently planning visits as well in the next several weeks.
The aim of the visit is to “defuse tension” on the local Lebanese scene, a euphemism for figuring out what the heck to do about an alleged impending indictment against Hizbullah members by the U.N. Special Tribunal for Lebanon.
The fact that the Saudi and Syrian leaders are personally handling this crisis suggests that they are leaving nothing to chance: an STL indictment against Hizbullah could thrust Lebanon into complete political paralysis and possible sectarian violence. What the summit also reveals, however, is that, unlike in years past, the Saudis and Syrians seem to be working together to make sure that everyone is on the same page. Had the current crisis emerged two or three years ago (when the Middle East was in the grip of a mini Cold War) it is safe to imagine that the March 14 coalition and its Saudi allies would have been very happy to use the indictments to try to push Hizbullah into a corner, furthering pressuring its regional sponsors in Damascus and Tehran.
Instead, what we’re seeing today from Saad al-Hariri and the Saudis is a much more cautious policy of containment which recognizes the valuable political capital that may soon be delivered via an STL indictment against Hizbullah, but which also recognizes the folly of bearing down too hard on the Shiite party. If Hizbullah feels pressured, as they did in late 2006, there’s a significant likelihood that they will respond as they did then, by resigning from Hariri’s cabinet along with their allies. If they are joined by AMAL, the FPM, and Jumblatt’s ministers, this would bring down the government.
This seems to be an outcome that both the Saudis and the Syrians want to avoid. The question is, however, what kind of middle path is available? If the summit is a success, we should know within about a week.