Prague, 4 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Saudi officials say Crown Prince Abdullah advised Syria to pull out it 14,000 troops from Lebanon "rapidly." The call came during yesterday's visit to the Saudi kingdom by Syrian president Bashar Asad.
Reinood Leenders is a Beirut-based analyst with the International Crisis Organization (ICG) and specializes in Lebanese and Syrian affairs. He tells RFE/RL the Saudi move is a major rebuff for Syria: "I really think that Bashar Asad did go to Saudi Arabia to get some sort of support for his position, an Arab form of support behind, for example, gradual withdrawal of Syria rather than immediate withdrawal now demanded by the opposition here. It seems that he has failed in this and spectacularly so, with the Saudis going public basically joining the ranks of United States and the Lebanese opposition so I think this is a major setback for the Syrian regime."
"I think this is a major setback for the Syrian regime."
Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal told the "Al-Hayat" newspaper in remarks printed today that talks between Saudi officials and the Syrian leader were "fruitful" and "their positive results will emerge soon".
Leenders, however, says he believes it is not clear how Syria will respond: "I think at the end of the day the Syrian regime is obsessed with what the U.S. is going to say. They've always had their focus on the U.S., so this is setback for them because it blocks a way out for them. But on the other hand, I don't think it will drastically change their position as such. I suspect they will still try to play their kind of game of bargaining or as it is called here the kind of policy 'of the edge,' trying to give some concessions but demand something in return."
Syria is facing mounting international pressure to withdraw troops from Lebanon since last month's assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Many blame Syria for the murder, but Syria's government has denied any involvement.
Syrian forces were originally deployed to help stabilize Lebanon during the country's civil war. Now many say the troops are no longer necessary and mark a de facto occupation of the country.
Syria on the other hand counters that its forces are needed to guarantee stability.
Earlier this week Asad told the U.S.-based "Time" magazine that Syria might withdraw in a few months, but some observers have expressed skepticism.
Saudi Arabia reportedly warned Syria that a refusal to withdraw could lead to strained relations between the two countries. Leenders say the Saudis were angered by Hariri's killing: "Since the assassination of Hariri, the Saudis are furious. Hariri was a Saudi national, he was their man, and the assassination and strong suspicions that Syrians were behind the assassination was seen as a direct slap in the face of the Saudis."
British Foreign Secretary Straw said today that Syria risks being "treated as a pariah" by the rest of the world if it fails to act swiftly to withdraw its military forces. Straw said UN Security Council members informally discussed the possibility of deploying peacekeeping forces in Lebanon to cover the withdrawal of Syrian troops.
This follows yesterday statement by U.S. President George W. Bush that the message was clear that Syria must pull out: "The message is loud and clear from the United States and France and many other nations that Syria must withdraw not only her troops but her secret service forces out of Lebanon now."
Bush said a Syrian withdrawal would help democracy flourish in Lebanon.
Meanwhile, in Moscow today, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's was to hold negotiations with Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Walid Muallem. Russia too has recently placed pressure on Syrian forces to leave Lebanon, but says the withdrawal must be carried out to avoid instability.