DAMASCUS, Syria -- Secretary of State James A. Baker III endorsed President Hafez el Assad's wish for an "Arab solution" to the Persian Gulf crisis yesterday as Syria prepared to send a 15,000-man division to the gulf.
Meeting for more than four hours at the presidential palace on a high hill commanding Damascus, the two men discussed the crisis and the ways the United States and Syria could cooperate. But they also talked extensively about Syria's support for terrorism and about the Middle East peace process.
Mr. Baker's endorsement of an "Arab solution" marked a shift in emphasis by the administration and an important gesture to Mr. Assad's strong Arab nationalism.
"We talked ... about the importance of this being an Arab solution. And one thing I think is demonstrated, if I may say so, by the fact of my presence here today is that this is indeed largely an Arab solution that we're trying to implement."
Previously, administration officials have stressed the international nature of the coalition massed against Iraq, although several Arab states have sent ground troops into the region.
The United States also has stressed America's responsibility to lead the coalition. Arab efforts early on to reverse the Iraqi invasion by themselves failed.
Testifying Sept. 4 on Capitol Hill, Mr. Baker said, "In this effort ... America must lead and our people must understand that. We remain the one nation that has the necessary political, military and economic instruments at our disposal to catalyze a successful collective response by the international community."
Whether the shift matters practically or not, it underscores Syria's vital importance in the gulf crisis and the careful way Mr. Assad is being handled.
Western diplomats say Syria will deploy a 15,000-man, 300-tank division; it already has 4,000 troops in the gulf. As a neighbor of Iraq and as a channel to Iran, Syria also is well positioned either to seal Iraq's borders or to dangerously undercut the United Nations sanctions.
In another gesture to his host, Mr. Baker played down the possibility of a long-term U.S. military presence -- most likely naval -- in the gulf to help guarantee the region's security.
He stressed: "We have no intention or desire to establish a permanent military ground presence in this region, and as soon as this crisis will permit our armed forces to be brought back to the United States ... this is exactly what we will do."
In a speech Wednesday, Mr. Assad asserted repeatedly that once Iraq is forced to withdraw from Kuwait, foreign forces must leave.
Mr. Baker prominently mentioned sources of strains in the U.S.-Syrian relationship -- chiefly Syria's support for terrorism -- but made no headway in resolving them.
"Our policy cannot and never will be amoral," he emphasized.
At a news conference with Mr. Baker, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa stuck to Mr. Assad's previous position that Syria would not take action against the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, the suspected bombers of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, until given evidence of complicity.
He accused the Western press of exaggerating the terrorism issue and said Syria was put on the list of nations sponsoring terrorism "without any justification."