Christopher holds detailed meeting with Syria's Assad


DAMASCUS, Syria -- Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher met for five hours yesterday with Syrian President Hafez el Assad, outlining new Israeli ideas for a peace settlement and urging the Syrian leader to help prevent skirmishes across the Israel-Lebanon border from torpedoing the delicate negotiations.

"I brought some thoughts from Prime Minister [Yitzhak] Rabin which I shared with the president," Mr. Christopher said after the meeting, the longest he has ever held with Mr. Assad. "We discussed in some detail all of the elements to a possible solution.

"It is safe to say that we are laying the base for future progress," he added. Mr. Christopher said he relayed Israel's call for Syria to use its influence with the militant Islamic organization Hezbollah in southern Lebanon to stop attacks on northern Israel and other acts of international terrorism. Israeli and Hezbollah forces have been skirmishing since last week.

But after the meeting, Mr. Christopher indicated that Mr. Assad offered very little of the help the Israelis want. "It is common ground between us [Washington and Damascus] that only a comprehensive peace is the solution to the tensions in southern Lebanon," he said.

Mr. Christopher flew to Damascus after talks in Jerusalem with Mr. Rabin and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.

After his meeting with Mr. Christopher yesterday morning, Mr. Peres said Israel urged the United States to pressure Syria to rein in Hezbollah, an organization that is thought to be controlled by Iran but which is also known to be influenced by Syria.

"I believe both the prime minister and I have conveyed through Secretary Christopher a firm demand that the Lebanese and the Syrians take things into their own hands and stop this savagery," he said.

U.S. officials said later that Mr. Peres used softer language in the meeting. In any event, Mr. Christopher clearly stopped short of passing along to Mr. Assad anything that could be called a "firm demand."

Although progress between Israel and Syria is painfully slow, Mr. Christopher said he is optimistic.

Earlier, a senior administration official said Israel and Syria have begun discussing concrete issues, although they remain far apart. The official said U.S. mediation can narrow the gaps but that direct talks between the antagonists will be required to produce a settlement.

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