(CNSNews.com) – U.S. Senator John Kerry’s planned visit to Damascus this month will take place just days before a United Nations tribunal probing the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri is due to begin its work.
The Massachusetts Democrat and Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman hopes to meet with President Bashar Assad during the trip, which a committee spokesman said would also take him to Jordan, Egypt, Israel and the Palestinian self-rule area.
High-level Syrian involvement in the plot to kill the Western-leaning Lebanese politician in February 2005 has long been suspected, and a German judge appointed by the U.N. to investigate, Detlev Mehlis, later that year implicated top-level Syrian security officials, including Bashar’s brother-in-law.
Mehlis’ successor in the probe, Daniel Bellemare of Canada, is due to begin functioning as a prosecutor at a Special Tribunal in The Hague on March 1.
Bellemare told the U.N. Security Council late last year that his team of investigators had found links between the Hariri killing – which he said had been carried out by a network of individuals – and a number of other attacks under investigation.
Rather than debate the matter in the public arena, he said, the evidence would in due course be put before a judge, who would decide whether or not to proceed with indictments.
Bellemare described the beginning of the tribunal’s operations on March 1 as the investigation moving into its “international phase.”
Lebanon on Saturday marks the fourth anniversary of the assassination – a massive truck bombing in Beirut that killed Hariri and 22 others. A large rally is planned for the capital’s Martyrs’ Square.
The death of Hariri, who opposed Syrian political interference and military presence in Lebanon, triggered protest demonstrations and demands for Syria to withdraw its 15,000 troops. Under international pressure, led by U.S. and France in the Security Council, the troop pullout was completed later that year.
The assassination worsened relations with the U.S. that had already long been strained over Syrian domination of Lebanon, support for Hezbollah and Palestinian terrorist groups, and pursuit of non-conventional weapons capability. Syria has been on the State Department’s list of terror-sponsoring states since 1979.
A number of Democratic lawmakers, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and the occasional moderate Republican have visited Syria in recent years, usually over the objections of the Bush White House and State Department.
But the Obama administration has declared itself willing to engage with countries historically hostile to the United States.
Asked about Kerry’s visit to Syria, State Department spokesman Robert Wood on Thursday gave no indication that the department was troubled by it.
“There is a new administration,” he told a press briefing. “And the secretary has been very clear that she wants members of Congress to travel … to see the types of issues that we face in the department, to meet our people, and to learn more about some of these, you know, very complex issues that we deal with.”
Wood said he would not be surprised if Kerry had discussed the planned visit with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during a breakfast meeting on Thursday.
Clinton and Obama on Thursday both issued statements marking Saturday’s anniversary of the Hariri assassination and voicing support for the investigation into the killing.
“The United States is confident that the Special Tribunal for Lebanon will bring to justice those responsible for financing, planning, and carrying out the assassination of former Prime Minister Hariri,” Clinton said.
“The formal launching of the tribunal on March 1 will be an important sign of the international community’s determination to see this case solved.”