Clinton adopts Assad language on peace: Syria's leader is getting through to the US with his vision for the future, writes Robert Fisk in Damascus

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It was a victory for President Hafez al-Assad, a victory of words. Not the kind of cliches that accompanied Wednesday's peace treaty between Jordan and Israel but the words Mr Assad has been using since the Madrid conference three years ago. And it was Bill Clinton who was using them.

The White House press corps, sitting in the marble hall of the presidential palace above Damascus, asked the expected questions about security and 'terrorism', but it was President Clinton's replies - not Mr Assad's - which told the story. He talked about 'a just and comprehensive peace', about UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338 and 425, about how peace could never be lasting unless it was just, about 'the principle of land for peace' upon which a treaty must be based. And once, in the context of 'terrorism', Mr Clinton used the word 'Hebron', quickly, at the end of a sentence, as if he wished the world, especially Israel, might not hear it.

For Hebron, where an Israeli settler murdered 29 Palestinians in February, is not supposed to be on the list of 'terrorist' atrocities in Middle East history. Arab 'terrorism' - and Mr Clinton did mention first the Tel Aviv bus bombing last week that killed 20 Israelis and one Palestinian - is what the problem is supposed to be about. But Hebron is what Mr Clinton said. All the US-Israeli language of peace - about 'tests' of Syria's desire for peace, about phased Israeli withdrawals from the Golan Heights without guarantees of total retreat, about full peace before Israeli withdrawal, had vanished.

Perhaps chastened after meeting an Arab who was in no rush to make peace with Israel, the US President abandoned almost all the cliches he used at the Jordan-Israel peace treaty signing. He did not talk about the dawn of new eras, merely repeating that there would be no peace without Syria.

Mr Assad did not talk of victory. He smothered Mr Clinton in praise for his peace- making efforts and insisted that he wanted 'to express my readiness to work with him for making a real, comprehensive and just peace throughout the region'. 'Comprehensive' is the code word for withdrawal of Israeli troops from all Arab land.

It was the most dramatic episode so far in Mr Clinton's Middle East trip.

The Jordanian-Israeli treaty was a historic act whose own drama was symbolic. But Damascus was where Mr Clinton had to listen to someone who still refuses to give in to the Americans' steamroller of peace.

Standing behind a wooden podium, grey-haired, his voice rasping, Mr Assad asked why anyone should doubt his desire for peace. Why, an Israeli reporter asked Mr Assad, won't he meet Israel's Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin?

Because such meetings can get bogged down in detail and prove more like theatre than real peace-making, Mr Assad implied. 'Anyone who does not believe what we are saying doesn't want peace themselves,' he said. 'Why are the other side not convinced we are serious? I've heard statements from Israeli officials that Syria is serious. Rabin was at the front of those who said this. I hope my memory is correct but I heard Rabin saying that Syria is serious in the peace process - so of whom is Israel afraid?'

After his three hours of talks, Mr Clinton three times hinted at 'progress', which he 'could not and should not disclose'. But there seemed little reason to think Syria was bending under US pressure. 'Our views were identical on the importance of making a comprehensive peace,' Mr Assad said. Then came the key phrase. 'I stressed to President Clinton the readiness of Syria to commit itself to the objective requirements of peace through the establishment of peaceful, normal relations with Israel in return for Israel's full withdrawal to the line of June 4, 1967 and from the south of Lebanon.'

It was not the first time Mr Assad has made that promise, but its repetition in front of the US President - and Mr Clinton's unwillingness to contradict it - was what their meeting was all about. Israel, of course, wants to know what 'normal relations' means - an embassy, trade relations, tourism, absolute security? - and that is what the two men must have discussed.

Mr Clinton did try to continue his moral war against 'terrorism', the 'dark' forces about which he spoke in Amman the previous night, but he had softened its projection. A mention of 'terrorist infiltration' was clearly a reference to the guerrillas Syria supports in Lebanon but this was balanced by his condemnation of the 'bombardment' of innocents which presumably referred to Israel's artillery targeting of civilian villages which killed more than 120 civilians in Lebanon last year and another seven only two weeks ago. Only once did he appear to pick Syria up on its failure to condemn the Tel Aviv bus bomb.

'The murderous acts of terror we have witnessed over the past weeks had two targets,' Mr Clinton said. 'First, innocent civilians, second, the very peace which President Assad supports. All who work for peace must condemn these terrorist acts. President Assad and I agree that the peace process leaves no place for the killing of innocents.'

When a US reporter asked when Syria was going to abandon 'the sponsorship of terrorism', Mr Assad claimed such allegations were propaganda - 'made not because Syria is practising terrorism but for reasons related to our stand against Israel'. He had, he said, asked a senior US official visiting Syria for proof of a single terrorist act carried out by Syria and 'he was helpless - he was not able to mention a single incident'. In Jerusalem nine hours later, however, Mr Clinton changed his tune: 'I regret that President Assad did not take the opportunity to say in public what he said in private -about his deep regret at the Tel Aviv bus bombing.'

(Photograph omitted)