Just four days before Hafez Assad meets with President Carter, the Syrian president reiterated today his willingness in seeking new movement in the between Israel and the Arab states as part of an overall Middle East peace settlement.
Although he has made the offer before, the timing was seen as a new indication of the Syrian leader's seriousness in seeking new movement in the long-stalled negotiations.
"If a Mideast settlement requires the establishment of a demilitarized zone, we are free to discuss the issue provided the zones are narrow and on both sides of the border," Assad said in a press conference for reporters covering his meeting with Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky.
his statement could be a key ingredient of any settlement - allowing the Israelis to return occupied territory without endangering their security.
Assad, pivotal Arab figure in any Middle East peace talk, has not proposed any plan for a settlement but he has quietly supported efforts by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Jordanian King Hussein to achieve a quick settlement of almost 30 years of belligerence between Arab and Jew.
In the past Assad has insisted that Israel return to its pre-1967 boundaries. He has stated repeatedly that Syria will not give "an inch" of land in any settlement - including in the Golan Heights, which Israel now controls. Israel is determined to prevent shelling from the heights of farming settlements in the Jewish state below.
In effect, Assad tonight agreed to promise to keep the Golan Heights free of artillery if Israel returns the farmland on the Syrian slopes. Since the Israelis now control the high ground, Israel settlers are able to farm land on the upward slope that until 1967 was part of Syria.
Syrian officials, in interviews over the past two weeks, pointed that with modern weapons they could - but do not intend to - reach Israeli settlements over the hill.
Assad's statement reflects the intense interest the Syrians have in moving toward a peace settlement this year - a view shared by President Carter.
Asad Elias, President Assad's press secretary, said earlier this week that Syria is flexible on the subject of demilitarized zones while sticking firm to other positions.
These include returning to Syria - and to other Arab states - land occupied in the 1967 war, and recognition of the rights of the Palestinians to a homeland - probably the West Bank of the Jordan River and Gaza Strip.
President Carter has said that he believes any settlement must include a homeland of the Palestinians - without defining where it should be nor recognizing any right of the Palestine Liberation Organization to be the representative of the Palestinians - and secure boundaries for Israel, which since it was founded in 1948 has been threatened by the Arab states that surround it.
"For more than 20 years," said Elias, "the Arabs said no to Israel. Now we say all right, and the Palestinians say it, too" - meaning they accept a mini-state on the West Bank of the Jordan and the Gaza strip.
Syria along with the other Arab states, feels the United States can pressures Israel, through refusing to supply arms and economic aid, to agree to the Arab terms.
Israel, in the midst of an election campaign, has yet to address the peace issue except in general terms.
Assad has indicated pleasure with the broad outlines of Carter's proposals.