Striking an upbeat note about the prospects for a resumption of Syrian-Israeli peace talks, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright said today she was "much more hopeful" following a three-hour meeting here with President Hafez Assad.
U.S. officials declined to provide even the sketchiest details of Albright's conversation with the autocratic Syrian leader, saying only that he had provided "new clarifications" on Syria's conditions for resuming talks with Israel that broke off early in 1996.
Still, Albright's buoyant tone appeared to signal a shift. Prior to her arrival here today, U.S. and Israeli officials had grown skeptical about Assad's desire to resume the talks, despite an initial burst of optimism after the election last spring of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
"I feel, based on my discussions today, that President Assad is serious about finding the most productive way" to resume the negotiations, Albright said at a news conference after meeting with Assad and Foreign Minister Farouk Charaa at Assad's imposing modern palace overlooking the Syrian capital. "I leave here feeling much more hopeful than when I arrived here this afternoon."
After the news conference, Albright called President Clinton to brief him on her discussion, then flew to Israel, where she planned to meet Wednesday morning with Barak and other top officials.
The secretary, who arrived in the region Monday night, may be called upon to break a new deadlock between Israel and the Palestinian Authority that is threatening to undo their pledge to reach agreement by mid-February on the broad outlines of a final settlement.
Clinton has vowed to do everything he can to broker a comprehensive regional settlement by the time he leaves office in 13 months. While attention has lately focused on Israel and the Palestinians, Israel's conflict with Syria is in some respects more pressing in light of continuing Israeli losses in southern Lebanon, where Hezbollah guerrillas are waging proxy war against Israeli forces on behalf of Damascus and Tehran.
Barak's suggestion that he would consider a unilateral troop withdrawal from Lebanon by July has raised fears in the region that Israel could be drawn into direct military conflict with Syria if Hezbollah takes advantage of the pullout to attack northern Israel.
Despite Assad's public praise of Barak, the two sides have remained divided over Assad's insistence that Israel publicly commit to withdraw from the Golan Heights to the line it occupied on June 4, 1967--the eve of the Six-Day War--as a condition for resuming talks.
Syria maintains that in 1995, Yitzhak Rabin, then Israeli prime minister, pledged to do just that in a message relayed to Assad by then-Secretary of State Warren G. Christopher. Israeli and U.S. officials say Rabin, who was assassinated the same year, broached the prospect of a withdrawal only as a "hypothetical" offer aimed at judging Syria's willingness to meet Israeli demands for full peace and normal relations.
Since Barak took office in June, U.S. officials have struggled--first with high hopes, more recently with deepening pessimism--to find a formula that would bring the two sides back to the negotiating table. Their failure to do so has led to doubts in Washington about the intentions of the Syrian leader.
Many analysts have speculated that Assad fears the consequences of a peace agreement. The Syrian president, who is 69 and in failing health, is said to fear that a treaty with Israel could threaten his grip on power--and his plans to ensure that his son, Bashar, succeeds him in office--by forcing the country to open its doors to foreign investment and influence.
A senior European diplomat here disputed that view, saying that Assad recently signaled through European and Arab intermediaries--including Jordan's King Abdullah--that he is willing to show flexibility on key Israel demands, such as water rights and security guarantees.
On the other hand, the diplomat said, "I don't think Assad is going to go to the table unless he's given assurances that he regards as adequate." Assad, the diplomat added, "knows precisely what his bottom line is. He's not going to settle for less, and if that's playing it tough, that's playing it Syrian style."
A senior official traveling with Albright said the secretary was encouraged by "new clarifications on important points relating to the subjects that make up the components of the Syrian-Israeli track." The main issues are the depth of an Israeli withdrawal, the "character" of the peace, timing and security arrangements, U.S. officials said.
But Albright gave no hint of what those clarifications were. "Negotiations are very much like mushrooms," she said. "They do better in the dark."
CAPTION: Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright leaves the Damascus airport with Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Charaa after her arrival from Saudi Arabia.