CAIRO, Egypt -- What the Arab response would be to Israeli involvement in a war against Iraq took on new uncertainty yesterday, even as Secretary of State James A. Baker III expressed confidence that the coalition against Saddam Hussein would stay intact if Israel retaliated against an Iraqi attack.
Syria warned yesterday that it "cannot accept an Israeli intervention in this crisis," even if such an intervention is defensive.
Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq al-Shara said at a joint news conference with Mr. Baker in Damascus that an Iraqi attack on Israel, if it came, would be designed solely to transform the Persian Gulf crisis into an Arab-Israeli confrontation.
He said a provocation against Israel "would be intended to reshuffle the cards in the region . . . [and] that is why Israel should not respond."
The prospect that Israel would respond fiercely to an attack by Iraqi missiles has raised new concern in the days leading up to the Jan. 15 deadline for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait.
Mr. Baker has discussed the issue with leaders of Arab gulf states at each stop of his final pre-deadline tour of the gulf region, where he has visited Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Syria.
Israel, whose leaders view Saddam Hussein as a long-term threat even if he withdraws from Kuwait, has kept a low profile in the crisis at U.S. request, depriving Mr. Hussein of a strong political weapon with fellow Arabs.
But Iraq's foreign minister Tariq Aziz warned after his meeting with Mr. Baker on Wednesday that Iraq "absolutely" would attack Israel if war broke out.
The United States has pledged to retaliate against any attack on Israel by Iraq.
Israel has ruled out any pre-emptive strike against Iraq but has said it would respond if attacked in a way that Iraq would regret.
Yesterday, asked whether an Israeli retaliation for an attack by Iraq would split the coalition, Mr. Baker said: "At each of our stops we have had discussions of this issue with our Arab coalition partners, and the U.S. is very satisfied with those discussions."
Mr. Baker spoke after meeting in Cairo yesterday with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Foreign Minister Ahmed Esmat Abdel Meguid, before traveling to Damascus.
Mr. Mubarak, warning Israel to stay out, has expressed fears that the coalition could not survive Israeli involvement. Egypt is the only Arab nation to have made peace with Israel.
Similar fears have been expressed by Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, D-Maine.
Mr. Baker said yesterday that he was particularly satisfied with the Arabs' response on the question of what would happen if Israel became involved as a matter of "self-defense after an attack."
The United States has not discouraged Israel from defending itself but appears to want to make sure that any retaliation is seen in the Arab world as proportional to the attack by Iraq.
The issue is particularly sensitive with regard to Syria, a longtime opponent of Arab moves to make peace with Israel.
Syrian President Hafez el Assad, in a radio broadcast as Mr. Baker was arriving in Damascus, urged Mr. Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait so as not to benefit "the enemies of the Arab nation," a reference to Israel.
The broadcast, monitored by the Associated Press, warned Mr. Hussein of a "major catastrophe" facing his country.
Mr. Assad nevertheless said that if Iraq were attacked after it withdrew from Kuwait, Syria would fight alongside Mr. Hussein's forces.
Mr. Baker, while in Cairo, endorsed a last-minute effort by the Soviet Union to prevent a Persian Gulf war. The Soviet effort was disclosed after a conversation between President Bush and TC Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.