In peace effort, Clinton will visit Syrian president

October 22, 1994|By Carl M. Cannon and Mark Matthews | Carl M. Cannon and Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton, putting the prestige of the White House on the line to try to knock down one of the most intractable barriers to Middle East peace, announced yesterday that he would travel to Syria to meet with President Hafez el Assad.

"I will visit Syria because it is my judgment that the visit will further the goal of an ultimate peace agreement between Israel and Syria," Mr. Clinton said at a news conference. "And until that is done, we will never have comprehensive peace in the Middle East."

Mr. Clinton will leave Tuesday for a four-day, five-country trip that will be the most extensive visit to the area by a president since Richard M. Nixon, who was the last president to visit Damascus, in 1974.

The president's advisers say Mr. Clinton is aware of the political risks of conducting these negotiations personally. Syria remains on the U.S. list of nations that support terrorism, and Damascus provides a haven for a number of terrorist groups.

Moreover, Mr. Assad, unlike the other leaders Mr. Clinton will visit, has yet to make a significant gesture toward peace with Israel -- even though Mr. Clinton met with him in January in Geneva.

Mr. Clinton, alluding to attacks on Israelis during the past few days, including a Tel Avis bus bombing that claimed 21 lives, said those attacks made his visit all the more necessary.

"I think it is terribly important, especially since there have been violent reactions from the enemies of peace, that the United States stand with the friends of peace and the champions of peace at this time," he said.

His first stop, early Wednesday, will be Cairo, where he will meet with President Hosni Mubarak and Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization. He will then fly to Aqaba, Jordan, and join King Hussein and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel at the Israeli-Jordanian border for the signing of their historic peace treaty.

Later, the president will address the Jordanian Parliament and dine with the king.

Thursday morning, he will head to Damascus for a meeting at Mr. Assad's presidential palace, probably to be followed by a news conference at the airport. In Jerusalem, he will meet with Mr. Rabin and President Ezer Weizmann, address the Israeli Knesset, visit the Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, and likely tour the Old City and its holy sites.

Friday, he will visit Kuwait, address U.S. troops there and meet with the emir, and then fly to King Khalid military city in Saudi Arabia to meet King Fahd. The Kuwait visit, administration officials said, was as much for domestic consumption as anything else: Mr. Clinton is bypassing a scheduled campaign swing to the Midwest that he had hoped would bolster the chances of Democratic candidates Nov. 8.

But it was just as clear that the White House has hopes that the visit -- especially to Syria -- will significantly aid the painstakingly slow negotiations between Syria and Israel.

Administration officials say they realize that a major breakthrough is still months away, but they hoped for two things:

* That a peace agreement will eventually come.

* That Mr. Clinton's visit will produce some public gestures by Syria that will make Israelis more willing to make concessions.

"We expect, at a minimum, that at their joint press conference there will be signals of a more forward position," one senior administration official said.

To illustrate the difficulty of the negotiations, Mr. Assad so far has refused U.S. entreaties to even describe his vision of what a peace might look like. He also has refused to detail what he might offer in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Israelis want a promise of normal relations, with open borders and full diplomatic exchanges.

U.S. officials also continually press Mr. Assad not to let terrorist groups operate in Syria and want him to shut down the extremist Al Quds radio station, which praised the bus attack as well as the recent kidnapping of an Israeli soldier by the Islamic group Hamas.

Mr. Clinton's advisers rejected the argument that it would be better to cut Mr. Assad out of the trip as a way of pressuring him to make concessions to Israel.

"We feel it's better to make him feel he's engaged and not make him the tail on the dog," the senior official said. The Rabin government supports the move, U.S. officials said, although Israeli sources declined to comment.

"The United States has only so many arrows in its quiver," says Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "A visit to a nation's capital city is a major symbolic concession."

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