BEIRUT, March 3 Saudi Arabia's rulers warned Syrian President Bashar Assad on Thursday to begin withdrawing his country's troops from Lebanon or risk damaging relations between their countries, adding a leading Arab voice to a chorus of demands from Washington and European capitals, according to news reports from Riyadh, the Saudi capital.
Crown Prince Abdullah, who has effectively ruled the kingdom since King Fahd suffered a stroke in 1995, told Assad to start getting Syrian forces out of Lebanon soon or face deeper isolation, according to a Saudi official quoted anonymously by the Associated Press. The Reuters news agency quoted an unnamed Saudi official saying: "They know what they should do. They should withdraw immediately. This is what we told them, and this is what the whole world is telling them."
Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, right, receives Syrian President Bashar Assad at the international airport in Riyadh.
(Sana -- AP)
Assad traveled to Riyadh to meet with the Saudi leadership following the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, who died Feb. 14 in a car bomb attack in Beirut. Some have blamed Syria for the assassination, increasing international pressure on Assad to remove the 15,000 troops his country has in Lebanon.
Assad and his foreign minister, Farouk Charaa, met with Abdullah and the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud Faisal.
In Damascus, the Syrian capital, the official Syrian Arab News Agency reported only that Assad had discussed Arab affairs, an Arab League summit and Lebanon with the Saudi government, according to the AP. "Points of view were identical," the report said.
The meeting in Riyadh underscored the pressure Assad is feeling not only from traditional enemies, such as the United States, but also from Arab countries increasingly concerned by Syria's 30-year presence in Lebanon. Egypt, too, has sent envoys to Syria in the politically charged aftermath of the bombing that killed Hariri and 16 others. Arab foreign ministers meeting in Cairo, however, refrained from joining calls for a pullout, opting for diplomacy by individual Arab states, Reuters reported.
According to political analysts in Beirut, Assad was probably called to Riyadh to deliver a personal assessment of the slaying of Hariri, a close friend of the Saudi ruling family, and to indicate how he intends to address international calls for an end to Syria's presence in Lebanon.
Saudi Arabia, long a major player in Lebanon, hosted the negotiations in 1989 in the city of Taif that yielded the peace accord ending Lebanon's 15 years of sectarian fighting. Some members of Lebanon's anti-Syrian opposition movement say they believe Assad was seeking Saudi endorsement of his position.
"I think Assad was hoping that he could have Saudi support for the Arabization of the crisis today in Lebanon, like they did 15 years ago," said Farid Khazen, who is chairman of the political studies department at American University in Beirut and is working with the opposition. "Apparently Saudi Arabia has advised them to withdraw from Lebanon. The Saudi position here can be crucial and determining, and it is also in line with the American position."
The United States and France, often at odds over foreign policy in recent years, have led the international effort demanding that Syria withdraw its troops from Lebanon, dismantle its intelligence apparatus here and disarm Hezbollah, the radical Shiite Muslim militia it supports in the south. The demands are contained in a U.N. Security Council resolution passed last year after the term of Lebanese President Emile Lahoud was extended by the Lebanese parliament under Syrian pressure.
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, during a visit to Yemen on Thursday, joined that call. Schroeder said the resolution must be implemented to give Lebanon "an opportunity for sovereignty and development."
Russia, a traditional Syrian ally, abstained from voting on the Security Council resolution. But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov appeared to join the debate late Wednesday in an interview with the BBC in which he called on Assad to withdraw his troops, but used the same language as the Syrian president.
"Syria should withdraw from Lebanon," Lavrov said in the interview. "But we all have to make sure that this withdrawal does not violate a very fragile balance which we still have in Lebanon, which is a very difficult country ethnically."
Some Arab leaders have expressed hope that Syria would at least withdraw troops from bases around Beirut in compliance with the Taif accord.
"We have to contain, with all our capabilities, the existing big problems and to shift the current situation into a safer position," Amr Moussa, secretary general of the Arab League, said Thursday during a meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo. "No doubt the Taif agreement has its own role in solving the problem at this stage."