Prime Minister Jean Chretien is nearing the end of his tour of the Middle East. He visited with Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad Tuesday.

After being criticized repeatedly for appearing to take sides in various Middle Eastern disputes, Chretien was careful, saying, "I cannot be, and no one is asking me to be, the arbitrator."

In less than 24 hours, Chretien met with the the new prime minister, participated in a memorial for fallen Syrian soldiers, and sat down with Hafez al-Assad himself.

Al-Assad is an enigmatic ruler whose stubbornness and unpredictability has antagonized the West while elevating him to cult status among pan-Arab nationalists.

Chretien raised some sensitive issues in Syria. He talked about human rights, and about anti-Jewish propaganda printed in Syrian newspapers almost every day.

He told the leadership that incitement to hate doesn't do anyone any good, and certainly doesn't help the peace process.

There was no Syrian reaction.

On the peace negotiations, Chretien was neutral. He said of the dispute over claims to the sea of Galilee, "For me, it has to be resolved in the negotiations between Syria and Israel. Canada cannot intervene in that matter."

Chretien pronounced himself well pleased by the visit, and so did Syria's deputy prime minister.

Tuesday night, the Prime Minister dined in Saudi Arabia, with the crown prince. Topics of discussion included money, business and trade.