Matthew Kalman Contributor- Five years after Syrian troops were forced out of Lebanon in the wake of the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad returned to Beirut today as the country's potential savior, accompanied by his erstwhile rival, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.
It was Assad's first visit to Lebanon since Syrian agents were blamed for the Hariri assassination, and no Saudi monarch has set foot there since 1957. What's brought them together there now is a bid to avert a looming crisis that threatens to tear apart Lebanon's fragile national unity government and plunge the country back into civil war.
In a series of recent speeches, Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah has denounced the special tribunal as a Zionist plot and says he will not accept the indictment of any Hezbollah operatives. Since Hezbollah is part of Lebanon's shaky governing coalition, its displeasure could quickly lead to a full-scale government breakdown, if not a renewal of the 2008 clashes that brought the country to the brink of civil war.
The relationship between Hezbollah and other Lebanese parties is already tense. The group has been accused of putting the interests of its Iranian paymasters ahead of the Lebanese and continues to pose a military challenge to the Lebanese army in the south of the country, despite a U.N. resolution that forbids Hezbollah from maintaining an armed presence in the area.
Casting a shadow over the already complex domestic situation is Israel, which went to war against Hezbollah in 2006 and remains at the heart of the conspiracy theories that run rife in Lebanon. On Thursday night, Israeli public television revealed that the "prime suspect" in Hariri's murder is Mustafa Badr Al-din, a member of Hezbollah's inner circle and brother-in-law of Hezbollah military commander Imad Mughniyeh, who was assassinated in Damascus, Syria, two years ago. There was no independent confirmation of the Israeli story.
Lebanon's current prime minister, Saad Hariri, is Rafik Hariri's son. He emerged as a leader of the March 14 Alliance -- a broad-based movement of national unity formed after the assassination. But now Hariri's pursuit of his father's killers could bring about his political demise.
Over dinner a few weeks ago, Nasrallah angrily rejected a compromise offered by Hariri in which the culprits in his father's murder would be described as "rogue elements" within Hezbollah – a notoriously disciplined and centralized organization.
"The prime minister has been waiting for years for the indictment to be announced and for the trial to proceed," Hilal Khashan, professor of political studies at the American University in Beirut, told AOL News. "Now he is caught in the middle between the two camps. He is damned if he accommodates the tribunal, and he'll be damned if he accommodates Hezbollah."
Enter President Assad and King Abdullah, who have been vying for control of Lebanon for years. The country has long been considered a Syrian client and until 2005 was effectively occupied by a garrison of 30,000 Syrian troops. Abdullah backed Rafik Hariri's anti-Syrian stance, and after the assassination, the Saudis threw their weight behind Saad Hariri and the March 14 Alliance.
After years of blaming Syria directly for his father's death -- buttressed by the findings of the tribunal's initial investigation -- Hariri suddenly flew to Damascus in December 2009 to renew Lebanese-Syrian ties with Saudi blessings.
"The Saudis came to the conclusion that they can never have the upper hand in Lebanon and that they must work through Syria," says Khashan. "They told Hariri to reach terms with them. Syria has been exonerated from the assassination of Hariri, and the assassination has been downgraded to involve a few members in Hezbollah.
"The fact that the Saudi king and the Syrian president are coming together to Beirut indicates the prominent role of Syria, and it gives it Saudi legitimacy," he says.
But for many Lebanese, questions about the tribunal remain. Its first investigative report prominently mentioned the Syrian president and ordered the arrest of four senior Lebanese military and security officials, who were held for three years and eight months, then released.
In May 2009, Der Spiegel revealed that Lebanese investigators had found a link between eight cell phones used at the time of the attack and a network of 20 other phones belonging to Hezbollah's military wing.
Nasrallah promptly denied the Der Spiegel report, calling it "fabricated." He is said to have explained privately that Hezbollah was indeed carrying out its own military operation in the area on that day, but it was unconnected.
Observers note that Der Spiegel is a favored channel for Israeli intelligence leaks. The apparent Israeli connection was boosted further with a string of arrests of employees of Lebanon's Alpha cellular phone company, who were supplying Israel with data and passwords. Some observers believe that Israeli intelligence could have faked the information linking Hezbollah to the cell phones used by the assassins.
In July, Israel's military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, announced that he expected internal tensions in Lebanon when the tribunal announces its findings in the autumn.
Next Tuesday, Nasrallah has promised to reveal more information about the tribunal. By then, we might know whether the Syrian-Saudi gambit has saved Lebanon from a new civil war.