DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) – U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan met Friday with Syrian President Bashar Assad to seek the key Hezbollah backer’s support for the implementation of a resolution that halted 34 days of fighting between Israel and the guerrillas in neighboring Lebanon.
The two met Friday morning for about an hour, but there was no immediate word on what was discussed. Annan was scheduled to speak to reporters at the Damascus airport later Friday, before departing for Qatar.
Annan was expected to press Syria to join international efforts to stop the flow of arms across its border to Hezbollah and urge Syrian authorities to do what they can to help win the release of two Israeli soldiers captured by the guerrillas in a July 12 raid that sparked the war.
Syria already made it clear in a meeting between Foreign Minister Walid Moallem and Annan late Thursday that it supports the cease-fire, the withdrawal of Israeli forces from south Lebanon and the lifting of Israel’s sea and air blockade of Lebanon.
But other parts of the Aug. 11 resolution have yet to be dealt with, including securing Lebanon’s eastern border to prevent the flow of arms to Hezbollah and settling the status of a disputed border area in that Israel occupies.
Israel demands the deployment of peacekeepers along the Syria-Lebanon border, but Assad is strongly opposed to their presence, calling such a move a hostile act. His foreign minister reportedly threatened to close the border, Lebanon’s only land link to the Arab world. Lebanon has its own forces along the frontier, and Annan said peacekeepers would go only if asked by Lebanon’s government.
Another issue of contention between Syria and the United Nations is Chebaa Farms, a disputed territory where the corners of Lebanon, Syria and Israel meet. Assad refuses to draw a definite border there, before Israeli forces
withdraw from the area. U.N. Resolution 1701 calls on Annan to come up with proposals for resolving the issue.
Before flying to Damascus on Thursday from Jordan, Annan said the time was ripe for normal ties between Lebanon and Israel and said the U.N. resolution that brought an end to the fighting Aug. 14 could help pave the way.
“This is the opportunity to move things for normal relations between Israel and Lebanon, if Resolution 1701 is implemented in its entirety,” Annan said. “We need to implement 1701 and capitalize on building relations between Israel and Lebanon” as well as with other Arab neighbors to “stabilize the region.”
That seems unlikely anytime soon. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he hoped the cease-fire with Hezbollah could lead to a permanent peace deal with Lebanon. But Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora said Wednesday his country would be the last Arab nation to make peace with the Jewish state.
Annan’s visit to Syria, a pivotal nation that wields influence over Hezbollah, follows stops in Lebanon and Israel, where Annan failed to persuade Olmert to lift the siege on Lebanon. Israel says the blockade is meant to keep Hezbollah from receiving more arms, and it will only lift it when an expanded U.N. peacekeeping force is in place.
Repeating Damascus’ longtime policy on the Arab-Israeli conflict, Syria’s official news agency said Moallem and Annan, in their meeting late Thursday, stressed the need to move forward toward a comprehensive and just peace based on previous U.N. resolutions that demanded Israel withdraw from Arab territory it occupied in the 1967 Mideast war, and on the principle of Israel relinquishing Arab land in return for peace.
Annan began his 11-day Mideast tour Monday in Beirut, where he called on all sides to cooperate, saying neighboring countries should take steps to secure their borders. Other stops on his trip will include Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey.
Relations between Damascus and the U.N. have been tense since late 2004, when the Security Council told Syria to withdraw its army and stop interfering in Lebanon. The assassination of former Lebanese Premier Rafik Hariri in February 2005 forced Syrian troops to leave two months later, ending three decades of domination in the neighboring Arab country.
A U.N.-mandated probe has implicated top Syrian security officials and investigators have interviewed some of them. The chief investigator has met with the Syrian president.