Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright met with Syrian President Hafez Assad Saturday for the first time in two years, seeking to build on her success in closing an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal that was signed at a hastily convened ceremony here early this morning.
But Albright failed to persuade Assad to return to the negotiating table. The ailing and enigmatic leader continued to insist on conditions for resuming talks with Israel -- centering on a promise to return the Golan Heights -- that Israel regards as unacceptable, according to a U.S. official who attended the meeting.
After leaving the Syrian capital of Damascus Saturday afternoon, Albright also paid a brief, symbolic visit to Lebanon, where she became the first American secretary of state to land at Beirut's international airport in 16 years. From there she traveled to the signing ceremony at this Red Sea resort on the tip of Egypt's Sinai peninsula.
The dizzying pace of Albright's Middle East tour, her first visit to the region since December, reflects the Clinton administration's eagerness to capitalize on the election in May of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak -- and perhaps conclude a legacy-enhancing Middle East peace settlement before President Clinton leaves office in January 2001.
"Let us hope that throughout this region what once was considered extraordinary will more and more become routine," Albright said during her stop in Beirut at a news conference with Lebanese Prime Minister Salim Hoss.
Despite the optimism surrounding Albright's success in Israel and Gaza on Friday, Syrian officials continued to insist that they will not resume talks with Israel until that country acknowledges what they say was a pledge made by the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin to withdraw from the Golan Heights -- a strategic border highland that Israel seized during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Israel maintains it made no such commitment in negotiations with Syria that broke off in 1996.
Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Charaa, who met with Albright in Damascus Saturday morning, said at a news conference that Barak "belongs to the school of Rabin" and that a peace agreement could be reached "within months."
But Charaa also insisted that the talks resume "from the point where they left off" and expressed disappointment with the message that Albright carried from Jerusalem. "We expected that Secretary Madeleine Albright [would] bring us some good news after visiting Israel," he said, adding, "We are still hopeful that the good news will come later."
A senior U.S. official who attended Albright's two-hour meeting with Assad in a hilltop palace overlooking the ancient Syrian capital said that the Syrian president had showed understanding for Israel's security needs, had made clear that he is eager to reach a settlement and had expressed the view that Barak is a "serious, honorable man."
"Obviously we're not at a point where there's going to be an immediate resumption of negotiations," the official told reporters on Albright's plane. "We didn't go out there with that expectation."
The official said, however, that "we didn't hear much that was different" on the subject of Syria's terms for the resumption of talks. "I can't say I heard any movement on that."
Albright arrived in Damascus fresh from her successful last-ditch scramble to close a long-delayed agreement between Israel and the Palestinians on resuming West Bank land transfers and spelling out an ambitious timetable for achieving a final settlement. Barak's predecessor, Binyamin Netanyahu, signed the U.S.-brokered Wye accord last October but suspended its implementation a few months later, accusing the Palestinians of reneging on security commitments.
Albright and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak presided over the signing by Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in a gaudy, domed conference center at this popular beach resort and scuba diving mecca. The ceremony, which was scheduled for 11:30 p.m. to accommodate the needs of Israeli officials observing the Jewish Sabbath, also was attended by Jordan's King Abdullah and scores of Arab and Israeli dignitaries.
"The fact that Israelis and Palestinians negotiated this pact directly is a rich source of hope for the future," Albright said in a speech when the ceremony finally began after midnight. "When that happens, agreements are not only more likely to be signed, they are more likely to be implemented."
Syria was thought to be particularly ripe for a settlement. Assad, 68, suffers from prostate problems, diabetes and heart trouble and is said to be pursuing his own legacy -- a peace settlement that recovers the Golan Heights, which Syria lost when Assad was defense minister. Some U.S. officials believe Assad is eager for a treaty in part because he believes it would help pave the way for his son, Bashar, to eventually take his place.
According to U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity, Bashar, a London-trained ophthalmologist, lacks standing with the army generals -- most of them from Assad's minority Alawite sect -- who constitute the core of Assad's government. Not only would a peace settlement seal Assad's legacy as the savior of the Golan, but it also would help modernize Syria's faltering, centrally planned economy by attracting foreign investment.
Barak, for his part, has pledged to end Israel's costly war in south Lebanon, where Israeli troops occupy a strip of land as a buffer against guerrilla attacks by the militant Party of God, or Hezbollah, along Israel's northern border. That can only be achieved by forging peace with Syria, which maintains a heavy military presence in Lebanon and dominates its foreign policy.
Following Barak's election, U.S. officials were heartened by Assad's statements welcoming the new prime minister and also have detected evidence that Syria has restrained Hezbollah in recent months.
Less encouraging to the Israelis and their U.S. allies, however, has been Syria's claim that Rabin pledged to pull Israeli forces back from the Golan to the positions they occupied on June 4, 1967, at the start of the Arab-Israeli War. Itamar Rabinovich, the former Israeli ambassador to the United States and chief negotiator with Syria, wrote in a New York Times op-ed article last week that Rabin had, in fact, authorized then-Secretary of State Warren G. Christopher to discuss such a possibility with the Syrians.
By his account, however, Rabin broached the idea merely as a "hypothetical" possibility -- to test Syria's willingness to offer adequate security guarantees -- and not as a firm commitment. Israeli officials say, in any event, that they could not accept such a complete withdrawal because it would extend Syrian control to the shore of the Sea of Galilee, Israel's largest freshwater lake.
After landing at Beirut's airport this afternoon, Albright and her entourage raced in a heavily armed motorcade to Hoss's downtown office overlooking the Mediterranean, skirting Hezbollah strongholds in the city's southern suburbs. Although Albright traveled to the city by helicopter from Cyprus two years ago, she is the first secretary of state to land at the airport since George Shultz in July 1983.
QUEST FOR MIDEAST PEACE
Israel, which since its creation in 1948 has fought four wars with its Arab neighbors, has subscribed to the principle of giving up land for peace. But the process has been slow and torturous.
Peace talks started in 1991, but no accord has been reached. The Israeli-run South Lebanon Army still operates in southern Lebanon; Israel has occupied a nine-mile-wide strip along Lebanon's southern border since 1978. Syria, which has backed the militant Hezbollah movement, still has 30,000 soldiers stationed in Lebanon.
Israel has turned over parts of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank to Palestinian self-rule. Talks last week resulted in agreement on further Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank and the release of Palestinian prisoners.
Talks were suspended in 1996. The main issues are the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, security guarantees and the extent of relations between Syria and Israel if a treaty is reached.
Ehud Barak's Labor government resumed negotiations with the Palestinian Authority this year after talks had stalled during the conservative government of Binyamin Netanyahu.
Egypt and Israel signed a peace agreement in 1979, and Israel returned the Sinai, which it occupied in the 1967 war.
Israel in 1994 signed a peace accord with King Hussein, who died in February.