DAMASCUS, SEPT. 14 -- Syrian President Hafez Assad told Secretary of State James A. Baker III today that Syria is prepared to commit an armored division to the multinational force in the Persian Gulf, and Baker pressed Assad to use his influence to keep Iran from violating the global embargo against Iraq, administration officials said.
During the first high-level meeting between the United States and Syria in two years, Assad indicated that Syria wants to avoid a military solution to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. But Assad, who has been seeking closer relations with moderate Arab countries and the United States, also expressed unqualified support for the sanctions against Iraq, according to Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Charaa.
Baker and Assad met for four hours -- twice as long as planned -- in a windowless room at Assad's residence, sitting on overstuffed chairs and drinking coffee and juice. Just before the meeting began, Assad insisted that Baker be accompanied only by U.S. Ambassador Edward Djerejian and a translator.
In the meeting, Baker and Assad aired long-standing disagreements over the Arab-Israeli peace process, held an "extensive" discussion about Syria's record of terrorism, examined the prospects for release of American hostages in Lebanon and talked about Lebanon's political situation, Baker said. But he also reported they focused on "ways we can cooperate" to isolate Iraq.
"We have a common ground, we share a common purpose, with respect to the problems in the gulf," Baker said at an airport news conference. "But we make no secret about the fact that there are still problems, revolving around this question of terrorism."
On the gulf crisis, a senior State Department official said Baker and Assad discussed enforcement of the United Nations sanctions against Iraq, how to preserve Arab unity and deployment of military forces in the gulf.
Baker said Syria "will send or volunteer substantial forces for the common effort" to deter Iraq. Officials said Assad did not mention specific troop commitments but did refer to an additional division. One knowledgeable Western diplomat estimated that Assad is prepared to offer 15,000 more troops and hundreds of Soviet-built tanks. However, serious problems remain in getting the men and equipment to the front, and Syria is talking with several nations about transportation.
Syria already has deployed 3,000 troops in Saudi Arabia and 1,000 in the United Arab Emirates.
Charaa, the Syrian foreign minister said Damascus would put "no ceiling" on the number of troops from its 400,000-man army that could be sent to Saudi Arabia if requested. A Western diplomatic source said Assad, while delivering a clear endorsement of sanctions against his old foe, Iraq, also has some reservations about the massing of troops in the gulf.
Assad believes "the presence of foreign military forces in the Arab world and in the gulf is a danger," this source said. Assad fears that a conflagration could lead to wider hostilities in the region that would spill over to the Arab-Israeli conflict and perhaps involve Israel.
Following the meeting, Baker emphasized the importance of Arab nations taking the lead in resolving the confrontation with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. "We talked about the importance of this being an Arab solution," Baker said. "It is important for people, particularly in this part of the world, to realize that Arabs are in the forefront of the solution to this problem."
In another comment reflecting sensitivity to Assad's views about foreign forces in the region, Baker said, "We have no intention or desire to establish a permanent military ground presence in this region."
Baker pressed Assad to intercede with Iran and urge that it comply with the U.N. sanctions against Iraq. Officials said they expect Assad to carry this message to Tehran this weekend. The Western diplomatic source said Iran has told the Syrians that it is firmly against the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait but may not be fully committed to the international sanctions against Iraq, particularly if Tehran can capitalize on Saddam's weak position and recover some of the losses from the eight-year gulf war.
At the news conference late today, Baker and the Syrian foreign minister differed openly on the sensitive terrorism issue. Syria remains on the State Department's list of nations that sponsor terrorism, and it has given support to one group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, that has been linked to the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland in December 1988. Assad has said he would prosecute those responsible if sufficient evidence were produced.