DAMASCUS, Syria -- Secretary of State James A. Baker III met for more than six hours last night with President Hafez el Assad
TC in a post-gulf war bid to restart the Arab-Israeli peace process and bring more stability to this region.
The two held talks with aides present for several hours before starting a one-on-one session with translators that went well into the night.
Mr. Assad is known for lengthy lectures to foreign officials. But the duration of the Baker talks reflected a deepening relationship between the United States and Syria after the war and the secretary's evident determination to wring something tangible from his six-nation trip.
Mr. Baker arrived here from Jerusalem, where he had laid out for Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir a range of steps that could draw parallel concessions of roughly equal importance from Arab leaders.
U.S. officials see the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights as one avenue to explore in trying to bring two enemies to terms.
Syria, however, also sees itself as the foremost pan-Arab champion of Palestinian rights.
Its controlled press demands that Israel withdraw from all occupied territory, including the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Mr. Assad, who sent troops to fight in the war, drew appreciative statements from President Bush and a long-term role in helping to protect the Persian Gulf with ground forces.
Reports in Israel claim that Syria, which has gained large infusions of aid from the oil-rich gulf countries because of its stance during the war, is acquiring from North Korea a new batch of Scud missiles more advanced than the ones used by Iraq.
But a U.S. official here said that Israel did not appear to have enough evidence to inform the United States through official channels.
Mr. Baker was also expected to raise with Mr. Assad the subject of the American and other Western hostages held by Shiite Muslim radicals in Lebanon.
The hostages were reported to have been moved in recent days to the Syrian-controlled Bekaa Valley.
Mr. Baker was to meet with Lebanon's foreign minister today.
After arriving here, Mr. Baker toured Damascus' old city, visiting the ancient Umayyad mosque, where John the Baptist's head is said to be entombed, and walking along the bustling, colorful souk, or market, where shoppers and shopkeepers applauded him and a group of schoolchildren chanted a welcome.