BEIRUT — In a stark sign of Syria's dwindling diplomatic support, Saudi Arabia on Thursday demanded Damascus pull its soldiers out of Lebanon without delay.
The message, delivered to Syrian President Bashar Assad during a meeting with Crown Prince Abdullah in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, was the latest in a series of calls from Arab states for Syria to remove thousands of soldiers and spies from its smaller neighbor.
Russia and Germany also called this week for Damascus to give up its hold on Lebanon, joining Britain, France and the United States. Egypt, Jordan and the secretary-general of the Arab League have made similar appeals.
For years, Damascus has ignored its obligation to pull back the soldiers into Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, on the Syrian border, and negotiate a full withdrawal with the Lebanese government. But it has had to reconsider its position after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut on Feb. 14 prompted growing street protests and the international calls for withdrawal. Syria has denied widespread allegations that it was responsible for the killing.
The involvement of Arab nations gives Syrian officials a way to bring their soldiers home without appearing to be bending to the will of the West. Some analysts said the demands from Arab leaders, coming amid a flurry of talks with Syrian officials, suggest that Damascus has begun to accept the inevitability of withdrawal, and is looking for a way to leave gracefully.
"They're trying to find an Arab umbrella for the withdrawal from Lebanon," said Adnan Iskander, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut. "It's a formality which gives the impression that Syria is responding to pressure from Arab countries, which makes it easier. It saves face, really."
George Jabbour, a Syrian lawmaker, said Damascus didn't need "an Arab cover."
"What Syria needs is a demand from the Lebanese government to withdraw," he said. "But for the general dignity of the region, an Arab position is needed."
Syria, which holds itself out as the last bastion of Arab nationalism, is concerned a pullout will affect its image and honor. Even the Lebanese opposition leaders, for all their anti-Syrian vitriol, talk about the need for an "honorable withdrawal."
"Syria cannot be humiliated in Lebanon. The U.S. is asking for more than what Syria can deliver," said Nabil Sukkar, a former World Bank economist who now directs the Syria Consulting Bureau for Development and Investment based in Damascus. "It's important for the whole region that Syria stays strong. Syria tries to appear like it's not folding to dictates."
In September, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution calling for the immediate withdrawal of all foreign soldiers from Lebanon. But Syria, which has deep financial interests and thousands of intelligence agents in Lebanon, as well as an estimated 16,000 soldiers, isn't eager to relinquish its hold.
Syria has been adamant that its soldiers will not leave Lebanon until a peace deal is struck with Israel. Damascus' key negotiating chip for peace talks is its control of Hezbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon on the Israeli border, a leverage it may lose if it withdraws.
"Syria says, 'Well, what are we going to get for [withdrawal]?' " said Mohammed Sayed Said, director of the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.
"The Americans are calling the Syrian bluff for nothing and forcing Syrians to come to their knees."
Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan are trying to bridge the uncomfortable gap between the United States and Syria, he said. The three are U.S. allies and among the most powerful voices in the Arab world.
"They don't have much of an answer to tell the Syrians, but they certainly don't want Syria to play tough," Said said. "They want to save Syria, but in a way they want to save Syria against its own will."
The call from Saudi Arabia is significant because it was the host of the Taif Accord in 1989 that ended Lebanon's grueling, 15-year civil war. The agreement, under the auspices of the Arab League, also gave international approval for Syrian troops to remain in Lebanon to keep the peace between the country's warring sects.
If Arab leaders gave Syria's presence in Lebanon a stamp of legitimacy, they have begun to withdraw their support -- and undercut Syria's arguments. On Thursday, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa called on Damascus to comply with the Taif Accord by pulling its soldiers back to the border and negotiating a full withdrawal.
"We have to contain, with all our capabilities, the existing big problems and to shift the current situation into a safer position," Moussa said.
Saudi Arabia also is entangled emotionally in the crisis. Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister, lived in Saudi Arabia for years. It was there that he earned the fortune he later poured into rebuilding Beirut's battle-shredded downtown.