- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 24, 2007

DAMASCUS, Syria — Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said yesterday he would “gladly” meet Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at an upcoming Iraq conference, one of several steps Syria indicated it would take to soothe tensions in the Middle East.

“Of course I’ll meet her, if she wants to meet me,” the foreign minister told The Washington Times after a morning-long meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. “I might be in Sharm el Sheik, and so will she.”

However, the minister brushed aside questions about Syria’s willingness to cooperate with the U.N.-mandated international tribunal for the political assassinations of Lebanese officials, one of several U.N. priorities during the whirlwind visit.

Mr. Ban, who also met with Syrian President Bashar Assad and Vice President Farouq al-Shara during his seven-hour visit to Damascus, told reporters last night that the Syrians had pledged to revive a long-stalled process to mark the border with Lebanon and to accept the tribunal if a broad-based Lebanese government does so.

“I discussed this issue with President Assad at length, and then he said that this is an issue purely [for] the Lebanese people [to] decide with consensus opinion,” Mr. Ban told reporters packed into an airport conference center as a private jet waited on the tarmac.

“However, he said at the same time he would use his efforts to encourage the Lebanese people to arrive at national consensus.”

Given widespread suspicions that the assassinations in Lebanon were approved at high levels of the Syrian government, the pledge to seek unity in Beirut is a hazy proposition.

Syria cooperated with the early phase of the investigation into the car-bomb murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and two dozen others, but rejected subsequent efforts — especially after early findings pointed to high-ranking Syrian military and intelligence officials.

Members of the U.N. Security Council are growing impatient with the Lebanese parliament, whose Shi’ite speaker has refused to convene a session to authorize the tribunal. Chief U.N. legal adviser Nicolas Michel spent several days in Beirut last week without achieving a breakthrough.

In Syria, there is a growing fear that the Security Council will impose a tribunal on Lebanon. Damascus warned the U.N. delegation yesterday that if that were to happen, it could lead to bloodshed in Lebanon with negative implications for Syria, Jordan and Iraq.

Syria, which sent troops into Lebanon soon after the beginning of the 1975-1990 civil war, withdrew about 22,000 troops and intelligence assets amid international outrage over the February 2005 Hariri assassination. Some intelligence agents are widely believed to remain.

The secretary-general said he had also asked the Syrians to revive a moribund process to formally draw a Syria-Lebanon border, a symbolic act that could buttress Lebanon’s independence and make it easier to detect the smuggling of weapons in violation of Security Council resolutions.

The U.N. Security Council has authorized an observer mission to monitor the border in an attempt to halt the smuggling. But Syria has threatened to close its side of the border in response, a move that could strangle the regional economy.

The Israelis have shown Mr. Ban what they describe as proof that Hezbollah is being resupplied with missiles through the Syrian border. Members of the U.N. delegation said that Syria did not dispute the charge, but dismissed it as coming from a tainted source — Israeli surveillance planes being flown over Lebanon in violation of the same resolutions.

If the border were to be clearly marked and agreed to, the benefits could be significant, according to Terje Roed-Larsen, the U.N. Middle East envoy.

A formal border would underscore Lebanon’s sovereignty and hasten the day that Damascus establishes diplomatic relations with its former territory as a sovereign nation.

Mr. Ban spent nearly an hour with Mr. Assad in his palace yesterday morning, a private meeting that neither side publicly described.

However, Mr. Ban, 62, seemed buoyed by his trip, his second to the region in less than a month. He is also slated to attend the May 4 Iraq Compact meeting in Egypt, at which governments are expected to pledge financial, technical and diplomatic support for the struggling Iraqi government.

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