DAMASCUS, SYRIA, JAN. 12 -- Secretary of State James A. Baker III won a commitment from Egypt today to join in a military operation to force Iraq out of Kuwait, but Syria stopped short of agreeing to be part of the offensive force if war is necessary, officials said.
Baker met for more than two hours with Syrian President Hafez Assad, and afterward Foreign Minister Farouk Charaa told reporters that Syrian troops in the multinational force "are there for defensive purposes, and up to this moment this is the case."
Charaa said Syria was consulting other Arab nations about what to do if war breaks out.
A senior U.S. official familiar with the discussions said Assad had not provided a commitment to fight, but noted that the foreign minister seemed to be leaving room for a change. "His key phrase was, 'up to this moment,' " said the official. "When we started, it was a given that Syrian force would not engage in offensive operations. That is no longer a given."
Syria initially committed troops to the multnational force to help defend Saudi Arabia against attack from Syria's longtime enemy, Iraq, but has been leery of joining an armed conflict that could trigger a wider war in the region. Reflecting this concern, Assad issued an unusual direct appeal on Syrian radio to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein today, imploring Saddam to relinquish Kuwait and avoid a war that would be catastrophic for the entire Arab world.
Baker devoted a day to making arrangements for the possible use of force with Egypt and Syria, two of the most important Arab allies in the multinational force on the Arabian Peninsula. Egypt has committed 40,000 troops to the Persian Gulf and Syria about 20,000.
In Cairo, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak "absolutely" indicated to Baker that he was prepared to join in offensive action against Iraq if necessary, a senior U.S. official said. His commitment follows a similar approval given earlier this week by Saudi King Fahd. U.S. officials said President Bush has not yet made the decision to go to war but that Baker was attempting to put in place the "next steps" should the decision be made soon.
Speaking to reporters outside the Egyptian presidential palace, Baker said he discussed such steps with Mubarak and, referring to Tuesday's United Nations deadline for Iraq to leave Kuwait, "we particularly discussed the fact that the deadline is a real deadline."
The participation of the major Arab allies is considered critical to any offensive, for both symbolic and practical reasons. One of the major concerns of administration planners is that any strike not immediately spread into a wider war involving Israel. After talks with Baker in Geneva this week, Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz threatened anew that Iraq would attack Israel in the event of hostilities.
Mubarak, whose country made peace with Israel, said in a television interview this week that Israel had the right to retaliate if attacked first.
But the prospect of Israeli involvement in a gulf war remains extremely sensitive for Syria. "We in Syria cannot accept an Israeli intervention in this crisis," Charaa, the Syrian foreign minister, said when asked if Syria would remain in the coalition if Israel became engaged in the fighting. Charaa said Iraq would only attack Israel to "shuffle the deck" and radically change the political alignments in the region, "and therefore Israel . . . should not intervene."
He did not elaborate, but seemed to be saying Syria wants to avoid any massive retaliatory strike by Israel that could make it one of the major combatants.
Baker, questioned about Syria's position, sought to keep his distance from the foreign minister's comment. He had raised the same issue with leaders in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates and said their responses were satisfactory. But tonight, choosing his words carefully, he said: "The response of the Syrian government with respect to that issue is the Syrian government's response. I do not pretend or presume to dictate to anybody what their response should or should not be with respect to particular matters in this crisis."
The United States has urged Israel to keep a low profile in the gulf crisis and said it would respond to protect Israel if Iraq attacked. A senior official traveling on Baker's plane said tonight, "There are significant and very efficient forces -- American forces -- now in the gulf and . . . if Israel were attacked that would be a provocation that would draw an appropriate response" from the United States.
Just before meeting Baker, an open letter from Assad to Saddam was broadcast on Syrian radio in which Assad appealed to Saddam to avoid war and to instead focus on their common enemy, Israel.
Assad warned of the "black future in front of us" that would result from war in the gulf. He urged Saddam to withdraw from Kuwait and said if war was avoided, Syria and Iraq could repair their past differences.
The message was unusual if only because of Syria's longstanding animosity toward Baghdad. Syria was an ally of Iran in the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, and Assad has long been viewed as a bitter foe of Saddam.
Baker said tonight that he had again raised the subject of terrorism with Assad, particularly the investigation into the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. Terrorists suspected of blowing up the plane over Lockerbie, Scotland, in December 1988 have been linked to Syria. Syria remains on the U.S. government's list of nations that have supported terrorism.