- The Washington Times - Monday, April 23, 2007

DOHA, Qatar — U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon arrives in Damascus today to ask Syrian leaders to “play a constructive role” in the Middle East peace process and to press for the acceptance of an international tribunal to pursue the killers of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Mr. Ban said that despite the brevity of the seven-hour visit, he hopes to win assurances that Syrian President Bashar Assad will use his power for good.

“I [want to] be assured of his strong commitment to work for peace and security in the region and to do whatever Syria can constructively to bring peace and stability in Lebanon,” Mr. Ban told The Washington Times.

He said he would also seek Syrian cooperation with Security Council resolutions designed to disarm Hezbollah, end Syria’s influence in Lebanon and establish a tribunal “of international character” to try suspects accused of political assassinations in Beirut.

Mr. Ban, who traveled to the region on Sunday to attend a democracy-building conference in Qatar, plans to talk with Mr. Assad and other senior Syrian leaders.

It will be his second visit within a month to Syria, which he hopes will use its considerable influence in the region to stabilize Lebanon, slow Iran’s headlong pursuit of a nuclear program and calm Hamas’ deteriorating relationship with Israel.

Hamas, the leading partner in the Palestinian unity government, declared on Sunday that it would resume hostilities against Israel after an official hiatus.

“I was dismayed to hear Hamas will resume fighting against the Israelis,” Mr. Ban said during the interview in his suite at the Qatar Four Seasons Hotel. “I urge both sides to refrain from taking measures against the other.”

“There is a great deal of expectation from the international community of the Palestinian unity government,” he added, lamenting the deaths of nine Palestinians in weekend fighting with Israeli forces.

Nonetheless, Mr. Ban said, Hamas “should reform their policy so that the international community, including myself and the United Nations, can have trust and faith in them.”

“I know there are different expectations, interpretations, of how they will reform their policies,” Mr. Ban said, “but I have been repeatedly urging … the international community to encourage this fragile peace process in the Middle East.”

The secretary-general’s visit comes just hours after the State Department announced new sanctions against 14 foreign government agencies, people and corporations thought to be aiding terrorism in the region.

The move, which is largely symbolic because of already existing sanctions and restrictions, is aimed at curtailing support for Syrian and Iranian missile technology and weapons of mass destruction capabilities.

The sanctions prohibit the awarding of U.S. assistance, government contracts or export licenses to the entities, and may be reviewed at any time over the next two years.

Mr. Ban — who has repeatedly counseled all parties to resolve their differences though diplomacy and politics rather than economic or military means — said he hopes Mr. Assad will make a credible commitment to working with the international community.

He also wants to discuss the smuggling of arms into Lebanon, which is a violation of Security Council regulations. The Syrians and Lebanese insist this is not happening, but Israel has offered what it describes as proof.

Damascus has objected to the international tribunal on the Hariri assassination, saying that Syria is not responsible for the killing of the former prime minister and two dozen others, but is committed to finding and prosecuting anyone who was involved.

Syria is a key financial backer of the Lebanese political and paramilitary group Hezbollah, which is protesting the tribunal from inside Lebanon.

Chief U.N. legal adviser Nicolas Michel was just in Lebanon to discuss the tribunal and try to find a way for the deeply divided Lebanese government to support it.

Mr. Ban said he spoke to Mr. Michel on Sunday morning and found him “still not optimistic.” A U.N. investigation has repeatedly implicated high-ranking Syrian officials in the February 2005 bombing of Mr. Hariri’s motorcade.

Mr. Ban acknowledged that Security Council resolutions calling for Hezbollah to disarm and for Syria to work with the tribunal have not been well received in Syria, but he said that should not matter.

“This is not a matter of what one wishes to or not,” he said. “The Security Council resolution is a binding one, and each and every member state has an obligation to fully implement it.”

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