Secretary of State Warren Christopher on Sunday registered U.S. and Israeli concerns about international terrorism with President Hafez Assad and surveyed prospects for "some sort of an understanding" of peace between the two countries.
"We are laying the basis for future progress," Christopher said.The five-hour meeting evidently produced few concrete results beyond an announcement by Christopher that he would return to the region in September.
A senior U.S. official said Assad listened carefully to Christopher's complaints about the fundamentalist group Hezbollah but did not give him "any set of responses."
Jubran Kourieh, a spokesman for the Syrian president, said Assad told Christopher his country was serious about the peace process.
Hezbollah is believed responsible for bloody attacks on Jews in Buenos Aires, London and possibly Panama. It has also dueled with Israel over the border from Lebanon, where Syria is the dominant political and military force.
"I expressed my concerns about Hezbollah," Christopher said. "We had a serious discussion of that issue."
On the peace track, meanwhile, "there are real gaps," said the official, who briefed reporters after Christopher gave a terse account of the meeting.
Mounting violence in the region and beyond has complicated Christopher's peace mission. Before flying here from Jerusalem he said he would be discussing "the problem of international terrorism," but his aides said no Israeli demands would be conveyed to Assad.
Christopher appealed for restraint on all sides, saying the violence could damage peacemaking in the region, which Christopher has now visited four times in the past three months.
However, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said Israel would never forego "any military measure that is necessary for defensive purposes." Insisting Israel was not trying to escalate the situation in Lebanon, Peres said after a 70-minute meeting with Christopher, "We weren't asked to stop it or change it."
Peres' assertion, which was coupled with an apology for civilian casualties in southern Lebanon, came against a backdrop of growing tensions along the border with Syria. On Saturday, two Israeli soldiers were killed in a clash with Hezbollah gunmen.
"A truly comprehensive peace is the answer to the kind of incidents that we've had in the last 48 or 72 hours," Christopher said.
"My main aim is to prevent this round of violence from cycling and causing difficulty for the peace process."
While traveling to the region Friday, Christopher telephoned Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Sharaa to appeal for restraint.
But on Saturday morning, Israeli soldiers clashed with Hezbollah guerrillas in a security zone in southern Lebanon manned by Israeli-backed Lebanese militia.
After the fight, Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed fundamentalist group thought to be responsible for bloody attacks on Jews in Buenos Aires and London, fired mortar rounds and Katyusha rockets into the zone and also western Galilee in Israel.
The Israeli air force, meanwhile, had raided Hezbollah targets Thursday night, hitting a house and killing several civilians. Peres said Sunday that Israel did not intend to harm civilians.
"It is not our policy; it was a mistake," he said.
But, Peres said, "Israel takes the necessary military and practical measures so that such incidents do not recur . . . This government will never prevent recourse to any military measures that are necessary for defensive purposes."
At the same time, the Israeli foreign minister said he and the prime minister had passed on to Christopher "a decisive request to both the Lebanese and Syrians to take matters into their own hands and stop this unruliness."
Syria, meanwhile, accused Israel on Sunday of fueling tension in south Lebanon to sabotage Christopher's Middle East shuttle.
"The smell of blood and the deliberate demolition of civilian homes could never be a good prelude," the government newspaper al-Thawra said in an editorial.
Similarly, state-run Damascus radio said Israel was trying "to drag the Arabs, one after the other," into agreements that produce peace but without Israel withdrawing from territory.
The commentary said if Israel was serious about peace it would agree to relinquish all the land it gained in the 1967 Six-Day war.
The media's criticism contrasted with claims by State Department officials that Syria's recent "public diplomacy" showed a moderate trend developing. They cited reports of the Jordan-Israel non-aggression pact signed last month in Washington.
The United States and Israel consider Iran primarily responsible for Hezbollah's attacks. But Rabin said last month in Washington that Syria could do more to prevent the flow of weapons to the fundamentalist group.