MOSCOW -- Syria, one of Israel's bitterest foes, seriously intends to pursue an "active" search for Mideast peace, Secretary of State James A. Baker III said yesterday.
With Syria's support, a senior administration official said, eight Arab countries and Israel have signed on to the Bush administration's approach on seeking Arab-Israeli reconciliation and a Palestinian settlement.
But none of the countries has yet given any clear indication of what it is prepared to do to move forward.
Mr. Baker arrived late yesterday in Moscow for meetings with President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and Foreign Minister Alexander A. Bessmertnykh to find out if the Soviets will be "constructive." If not, the United States will try to limit the Kremlin's role, he indicated.
Mr. Baker said before leaving Damascus that the peace effort was still at an early stage and would be "extraordinarily difficult."
"You have to crawl before you walk, and you have to walk before you run," he said, adding that his current trip couldn't be expected to produce "instant peace."
Of the Arab backing, he told reporters, "Now, maybe you don't think that's progress, and maybe it isn't. Maybe the wheels will come off tomorrow, but let's give it a chance."
As if to underscore the difficulties ahead, Syria acknowledged acquiring a new batch of Scud missiles to support what Foreign Minister Farouk Al-Shara called a continuing "state of war" with Israel.
Israeli sources say that Syria obtained from North Korea two dozen of a more advanced type of Scud than those used by Iraq, as well as some of the technology and hardware to produce them.
In addition, Syria may receive 12 more launchers to add to its arsenal, which already contains several hundred missiles, Israel believes.
Mr. Baker said that in his seven-hour meeting Wednesday with Syrian President Hafez el Assad, "we discussed at quite some length the importance of addressing the question of weapons of mass destruction and the instruments of delivery."
Mr. Shara said, "Israel has so many missiles and so many different types of mass-destruction weapons.
"Yes, a just and comprehensive peace would solve all these problems. We aspire, of course, to see our region free of all mass-destruction weapons," he said.
The Baker party viewed the Assad stance on Arab-Israeli peace as a major change in attitude. A senior administration official said Syrian of
ficials had said they were now willing to pursue a "genuine peace" with Israel, as opposed to just the absence of war.
Mr. Baker and Mr. Shara, at a joint news conference, agreed on the need for a "comprehensive settlement" on the basis of United Nations Resolutions 242 and 338. These call for Israel to withdraw from occupied territories but also assert the right of all states to live within secure borders.
"I sense a very serious intent on the part of the Syrian government to pursue an active peace process and to continue to work toward that end with the coalition countries that worked together to reverse [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein's aggression," he said. "Significant progress" is possible, he said.
Mr. Shara said, "We see a window of optimism and hope to give momentum to the peace process in our region."
The United States and Syria agreed "on keeping in touch and keeping these contacts in order to give a momentum to the peace process for the months to come."
Mr. Baker, who met Tuesday with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, described the Israeli government as "strongly interested in moving rapidly and actively toward peace."
With the backing by Israel, Syria, Egypt and six Persian Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, "we now have to put ourselves in the position where we translate concepts into steps," a senior administration official said.
At the end of the trip, administration officials will look for "points of convergence" between the Arabs and Israel and follow up with the various countries.
Mr. Baker raised the issue of Israeli prisoners of war and soldiers' remains still held by Syria, pointing to a possible early step in the peace process.