DAMASCUS, Syria -- Secretary of State James Baker met with Syrian leader Hafez Assad Saturday to maintain Arab solidarity against Iraq, but the vexing question of what Arab countries would do if Israel entered such a war marred the appearance of a united front.
With three days left before the Jan. 15 U.N. deadline for an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, Baker then flew late Saturday to Incirlik air base in southern Turkey, en route to Ankara for talks Sunday with President Turgut Ozal.
In Syria, Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharra told a news conference after the Baker-Assad meeting, 'Israel should not interfere,' suggesting Syria would switch sides, or leave the coalition, if Israel were to strike Iraq, even in self-defense.
Syria has remained in a state of war with Israel since the 1967 war in which Israel captured the geographically strategic Golan Heights.
Syria pledged some 20,000 troops to the anti-Iraq coalition in Saudi Arabia, but al-Sharra made clear they were 'for defensive purposes only.'
A senior American official said the Syrians have always said they would not engage in offensive operations against Iraq, but after Saturday's meeting, a senior American official said, 'That is no longer a given,' suggesting the Syrian position against Iraq has hardened.
On the issue of Israel, al-Sharra was asked by a reporter about Israeli intervention if it 'were struck by an incoming Iraqi rocket.' He replied, 'That would just be the way of Iraq re-shuffling the deck,' a reference to Israel maintaining control over Palestinian and Syrian territory.
Baker, sitting at his side, noted the United States has 400,000-plus troops in the region, plus ships and aircraft, suggesting without precisely saying it, that the United States, not Israel, would be in the best position to respond to an Iraqi attack on Israel, while maintaining the anti-Iraq coalition.
Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger arrived in Israel late Saturday to discuss such military and political issues.
Baker began his day in Cairo Saturday, where he talked to President Hosni Mubarak, and then went to Damascus, where he met Assad. After the meeting in Turkey, he is scheduled to fly Sunday to Britain for a meeting Prime Minister John Major and then to Ottawa to meet with Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.
Both Syria and Egypt have contributed troops to the Operation Desert Shield. But Mubarak said Egypt would remain in the anti-Iraq coalition if Israel were attacked by Iraq and struck back in self-defense.
As Baker met Assad in the Presidential Palace in Damascus, the state- run radio broadcast an extraordinary open letter from Assad warning Saddam of 'a catastrophe' if war comes, and pleading with him, for the sake 'of the Iraqi and the Arab nation' to take 'the courageous step' of pulling out of Kuwait.
Assad said in the letter that the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait violated international law. He pledged that Syria, despite past differences with Iraq, would help defend Iraq in the future if it left Kuwait.