[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Friday, 1 September 2006, 19:01 GMT 20:01 UK
Annan pays low-key visit to Syria
By Michael Voss
BBC News, Damascus

A few days before the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan arrived in Damascus there was another visitor here - Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez.

Kofi Annan with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus
Syria denies supplying arms to Hezbollah
There was a marked contrast in the way the two men were received.

For Mr Chavez, the Syrian authorities ensured that large crowds lined the streets along with Venezuelan flags and portraits of the man widely seen as one of the leading critics of American foreign policy.

There were red carpets, guards of honour and a joint press conference at the palace with President Bashar al-Assad.

Mr Annan's arrival was much more low key.

He came, held his talks and issued a brief statement at the airport on departure.

'Important regional player'

There's been not a word from the Syrian authorities all day.

It was not a hostile reception, though.

Syria has been ostracised by the world community since last year's assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Mr Annan's decision to meet Mr Assad on his tour of the region is seen here as an acknowledgement that the country is an important regional player and the world has to take note.

Syria, along with Iran, is one of the main backers of Hezbollah, whose abduction of two Israeli soldiers near the Lebanese border sparked the destructive month-long war.

Women in the southern suburbs of Beirut.
Syria has agreed to tighten security on its border with Lebanon
Damascus is also home to the exiled leadership of the Palestinian group Hamas.

The secretary general's initial meeting was at a working dinner with Syria's foreign minister at one of the picturesque courtyard restaurants in the historic old town in Damascus.

These were preparatory discussions to ensure that Friday's talks with Mr Assad had a chance to succeed.

The UN envoy to the region, Terje Roed-Larsen, told me: "We've been very well received and the atmosphere has been exceedingly good. There's been very frank discussions of very tricky issues."

The trickiest of those was over Syria's objection to having UN peacekeepers patrolling the Lebanese Syrian border to prevent arms being smuggled to Hezbollah.

Damascus threatened to close the frontier with Lebanon if they were deployed, cutting off all land routes to the outside world.

Syria is widely accused of supplying arms to Hezbollah, something Damascus denies.

Border patrols

The UN resolution, 1701, which ended the fighting in Lebanon calls for an arms embargo on the Shia militia and for Lebanon to secure its border.

But it says that international troops can be used only at the request of the Lebanese government.

Now the authorities in Beirut have despatched around 8,800 more of their own troops to the border region and say they don't need additional help from the UN.

The agreement which Mr Annan has reached with Mr Assad is that Syria will step up its own border patrols and work with the Lebanese army, including, when possible, joint patrols.

Some fear, though, that this is a case of poacher turned gamekeeper.

The question is: will Syria's pledge to support the ceasefire resolution be enough to persuade Israel to lift its sea and air blockade and withdraw its forces from southern Lebanon?

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific