GENEVA -- After marathon talks here with President Clinton, Syrian President Hafez el Assad declared publicly for the first time that Syria hopes to achieve "normal peaceful relations" with Israel.
The Syrian leader already had committed himself to pursuing this goal when he signed on to the Mideast peace talks, which began 27 months ago. But Mr. Assad appeared to use yesterday's meeting with Mr. Clinton and a televised, joint appearance afterward to signal his own people that peace with their long-time mortal enemy is coming.
"In honor we fought, in honor we negotiate and in honor we should make peace," Mr. Assad said. "If the leaders of Israel have sufficient courage to respond to this kind of peace, the new era of security and stability [with] normal peaceful relations among all shall dawn anew."
Mr. Assad did not define "normal" peace, refusing to say whether it would address Israel's goals of open borders, trade and the signing of a peace treaty. But U.S. foreign policy officials seized on his remarks, saying they contained huge significance in the arcane, but loaded, language of diplomacy.
"That's what the Israelis were waiting to hear," one senior administration official said. "The word 'normal.' "
Added another official: "He said a lot of things he has just not said before. We have seen new ground broken."
Mr. Clinton, at his last stop on an eight-day, five-nation European tour, described Mr. Assad's remark as "a clear, forthright and very important statement on normal peaceful relations . . . stating clearly that it is time to end the conflict with Israel, make peace with Israel. [It is] the first time that there has been a clear expression that there will be a possibility of that sort of relationship.
"I would hope that this would provoke a positive response in Israel and that then the parties would get together and work these details out," he added.
Administration officials said that negotiations are to begin next week in Washington between delegations from Syria and the United States. And administration officials said that a delegation headed by special ambassador Dennis Ross and White House national security adviser Martin Indyk would go to Israel to brief Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin about yesterday's talks.
Mideast peace negotiations are due to resume in Washington on Jan. 24. They have been in suspension since a deadlock developed in September over Syria's demand that Israel surrender the Golan Heights -- won in the 1967 Six Day War -- and Israel's demand for a specific peace offer. Since then, Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization have reached a breakthrough agreement, increasing pressure on Syria to be more forthcoming.
Mr. Clinton and Mr. Assad met, along with their delegations, for about 4 1/2 hours, followed by an additional 50 minutes with the two leaders alone, except for interpreters.
Neither side would reveal much in the way of details, but no decisions were reached yesterday on any of the difficult disputes that exist between Syria and Israel.
These include Syria's support for terrorist Palestinian groups and Israel's occupation of the Golan Heights.
Concerns about terror
The United States has concerns of its own about Syria's support of terror and stressed to Mr. Assad the importance of bringing to justice the suspects in the bombing of Pan Am flight 103, which blew up over Lockerbie, Scotland, at Christmastime in 1988, killing 259 aboard the plane and 11 on the ground.
The bombing was once thought to be the work of Syrian-sponsored terrorists. Suspects indicted by the United States are now believed to be hiding in Libya.
Regarding the issue of terrorism, one U.S. official in the delegation admitted afterward, "We had no meeting of the minds on that."
Despite all this, the Israelis have conveyed to the White House their view that the Mideast peace process cannot succeed without Syria, which has rejected peace on any terms with the Jewish state.
Syria's influence is pivotal on several fronts:
* Palestinian groups that have never renounced terror are given safe haven in Syria. Those groups are attempting to sabotage talks between Israel and the PLO.
* King Hussein of Jordan is believed to be ready for peace with Israel, but he is afraid to alienate Mr. Assad by making a deal unless Syria does so.
* Lebanon is occupied by both Syrian and Israeli troops -- and any solution in that country undoubtedly requires Syrian-Israeli cooperation as well.
Mr. Assad is isolated and in need of economic revitalization. His nation does not trade with Israel; his former patron in world politics, the Soviet Union, is no more; and trade between Syria and the United States is almost nil, due in great part to a State Department designation of Syria as a state sponsor of terrorism.