DAMASCUS, Syria -- Secretary of State James Baker and Syrian President Hafez Assad met Thursday as the quest for Middle East peace focused on a proposal for a meeting involving the Arab states, Israel and the Palestinians.
Baker, who traveled from Egypt to Damascus, gave no assessment of his five-hour meeting with the Syrian leader, whose government demands that Israel withdrawl from the occupied territories and respect Palestinian rights.
As key U.S. allies during the Persian Gulf War, Egypt and Syria expect the United States to reciprocate by pressuring Israel to make concessions on the Palestinian question. In talks with Baker this week, Israel proposed a regional peace conference, the concept of which was supported by Egypt. However, Syria has expressed interest in an international conference.
Syria's government-controlled daily newspaper, Tishreen, said in an editorial on Thursday that world cooperation in the Persian Gulf crisis proved 'international cooperation may solve complicated and critical problems.'
Before entering the meeting, Baker said the road ahead was long. 'I think we have made some progress but we still have a lot of things to do,' he said.
A regional conference, which would be held under the auspices of the United States and would include Soviet participation, would give the Israelis and Arabs a chance to settle what have been described as intractable differences.
However, an obstacle to such a conference has been Israel's refusal to guarantee that no new Jewish settlements would be placed on the West Bank, which Israel occupied during the 1967 war with its Arab neighbors.
The relationship between the United States and Syria has been uneasy. The State Department classifies Syria as a 'terrorist state' but understands its strategic importance.
Before heading for Damascus, Baker met in Cairo with his Saudi Arabian counterpart, Prince Saud Al Faisal, and Egyptian Foreign Minister Esmat Abdel Meguid.
Egypt's Middle East News Agency said Abdel Meguid and Saud gave Baker their countries' views on U.S. efforts to achieve regional security and peace.
Baker described his Cairo talks as 'fine' but gave no further details.
While in Cairo, Baker received an Egyptian five-point plan that calls for Israel's withdrawal from occupied territories and recognition of Palestinian rights. While Cairo is open to the idea of a regional conference with Israeli and Palestinian representation, it would prefer to see such a meeting backed by all five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.
Israel agrees in principle to U.S. and even Soviet sponsorship of such a conference but balks at letting the Europeans and Chinese into the picture.
Egypt and Syria are reluctant to allow the Americans to dominate a conference and argue viable peace must be supported by all nations with vital interests in the Middle East.
On Friday, Baker is to stop in Geneva for talks with Jordanian Foreign Minister Taher Masri.
Jordan became discredited in American and pro-Kuwaiti Arab eyes for its swing behind Iraq in the Gulf War. But Baker's meeting with Masri is an apparent indication that Jordan, with its majority Palestinian population, will have to play a key role in any viable Middle East peace settlement.