DAMASCUS: Syria on Thursday warned the United States to stop trying to interfere as Arab leaders try to defuse heightened tensions in the Middle East.
Saudi King Abdullah, who arrived in Syria on Thursday, was expected to travel with the Syrian president to Beirut on Friday to help calm concerns over pending indictments in the 2005 assassination of Lebanon’s former prime minister.
US State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters in Washington this week that he hoped Syrian President Bashar Assad would "listen very attentively" to Abdullah, a US ally.
Washington has urged Syria to move away from its alliance with Iran.
Syria responded that the US "has no right to determine our relationships with regional states or interfere in the content of the talks."
Syria and Saudi Arabia have long been on opposite sides of a deep rift in the Arab world. The kingdom is a US ally, along with Jordan and Egypt, while Syria backs groups such as the Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas.
Syria also is Iran’s strongest ally in the Arab world — a major sticking point with the US.
Relations between Syria and Saudi Arabia have begun to thaw in recent years, and Thursday’s visit by the Saudi monarch is a sign the countries are trying to show a united front as tempers mount in the region, including those in Lebanon over the investigation into who killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
Late Thursday, Syria’s official news agency said Assad and Abdullah agreed that the "challenges facing Arabs, mainly in occupied Palestine, necessitate that all (Arabs) double their efforts to upgrade inter-Arab relations."
Many in Lebanon blame Syria for Hariri’s assassination, a claim that Damascus denies. Hariri was a Sunni leader with strong Saudi links, and his killing exacerbated already-strained tensions between Riyadh and Damascus.
Hariri’s death was followed by the rise of a US- and Saudi-backed coalition known as March 14, named after the day of massive anti-Syrian protests in 2005 dubbed the "Cedar Revolution." The demonstrations eventually led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops, ending almost three decades of Syrian domination that was established during Lebanon’s civil war.
An international tribunal investigating Hariri’s death has not announced who will be charged, but the leader of the Shia Hezbollah said last week members of his group will be among those indicted.
Hassan Nasrallah’s announcement appeared to be an attempt to undercut the effects of any indictment, and he dismissed the tribunal as an "Israeli plot."
Many in Lebanon worry that if the tribunal implicates Hezbollah in the Hariri’s assassination, it could lead to another round of clashes between Lebanon’s Shia and Sunni communities, such as the bloody conflict that convulsed Beirut in 2008.
Assad’s expected trip to Lebanon on Friday will be his first trip there since Syrian troops were forced out.
Regional tensions also are high over recent reports that Syria sent Scud missiles to Hezbollah and suspicions that Hezbollah patron Iran wants to acquire nuclear weapons. Syria denies sending Scuds.
As part of his tour, Abdullah has already visited Egypt and is also to travel to Jordan.