DAMASCUS - Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah flew to Syria on Wednesday for talks with President Bashar al-Assad aimed at healing a rift that has aggravated Arab discord over Iran, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Lebanon.

Abdullah's visit to Damascus, his first as king, coincides with Syria's emergence from Western isolation as U.S. President Barack Obama seeks its help in his quest for Middle East peace.

Assad met Abdullah at the airport and took him straight to a presidential palace in the Syrian capital, Syrian political sources said.

Diplomats in Damascus said an understanding between the Syrian and Saudi leaders could help forge a wider Arab stance helpful to Obama's peace efforts, promote formation of a new government in Lebanon, and assuage the fears of Sunni Muslim Arab powers regarding Shi'ite Iran, an ally of Syria.

The two leaders have hot files on their hands. Palestine and the suffering of Gaza; Lebanon and its need for national unity; and Iraq, said Syrian state newspaper al-Thawra.

Obama needs help, and Syria has leverage over militant groups opposed to his peace proposals, a political source said.

Syrian-Saudi ties froze after the 2005 assassination of Saudi-backed Lebanese statesman Rafik al-Hariri, whose allies blamed the killing on Damascus. Syrian denied any involvement.

Assad broke the ice last month when he visited Saudi Arabia and held two hours of talks with Abdullah, but has given no sign that he is willing to sever his alliance with Iran.

I don't think Saudi Arabia has anything to offer the Syrians to prise them away from Iran, said a Western diplomat in Riyadh, adding that he doubted Riyadh would provide economic assistance on a scale that might influence Syrian policy.


Syria, keen to stay on good terms with the West, may at least be ready to use its ties with Iran to stabilize the region.

What Syria can offer on Iran is to make clear that Syria will not be party to any Iranian action against Arab interests, Syrian journalist Thabet Salem said.

He said a series of visits to Damascus by senior Western officials had effectively ended efforts to shun Syria.

Abdullah will be the one more likely ready to compromise, because Syria is no longer isolated and Iran's position has strengthened after the latest deal with the West, said Salem, referring to last week's nuclear talks in Geneva that resulted in tentative agreements between Tehran and six major powers.

Saudi Arabia, however, feels Syria is in the weaker position, argued Khaled al-Dakhil, a Saudi political analyst.

The Syrians want the visit at any price to avoid isolation by Arab states, he said. It also helps to dissipate the general perception that they had a hand in the assassination of Hariri and should pave the way for Hariri's son to visit (Damascus), which would be a major win for them.

Pro-Syrian Lebanese politician Ali Hassan Khalil said the Assad-Abdullah summit would reflect positively in Lebanon, where Hariri's son Saad is prime minister-designate and has tried in vain to form a cabinet since a parliamentary election in June .

The resumption of ties will certainly help in pushing forward a domestic settlement over the (Lebanese) government, Khalil told Reuters in Lebanon.

Saudi Arabia, which has its own Shi'ite minority, has long disliked the alliance between Syria and Iran, which both back the Shi'ite Hezbollah movement in Lebanon and the Palestinian Hamas faction. Both groups oppose Obama's peace drive.

Syria's alliance with Iran dates back to the 1980s when it backed the Islamic Republic in its 1980-88 war with Iraq.

The main thing is that Assad and Abdullah are now talking, which is a breakthrough in itself, one diplomat said.

(Additional reporting by Tom Perry in Beirut, editing by Alistair Lyon and Samia Nakhoul)