Clinton wooed by Syrian president: US 'encouraged' by Assad's commitment to normal relations with Israel - Peace lobby declares Geneva summit a success

THE SUMMIT meeting between President Bill Clinton and President Hafez al-Assad appears to have achieved what the Syrians always wanted: an improvement in relations between the two countries and United States recognition of Syria's key role in the region.

Israel had hoped the meeting would lead to some Syrian flexibility in its insistence on full peace in exchange for full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan, occupied since 1967. Israelis also wanted to know what kind of peace Syria was promising in return.

In the event, Syria restated its position on international legitimacy and justice - code words for a full Israeli withdrawal as a prerequisite of any agreement in accordance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 242.

But what President Assad impressed on the Americans was his commitment to the strategic goal of peace. The terms and the timing were secondary. In exchange he obtained US understanding of his position, and a restatement of the Mr Clinton's assurance that the US should play a full role as partner in the process.

This was Mr Assad's aim. He may travel little outside the region, but no one has greater political skills or experience. He demonstrated this by setting the terms of the discussions. Mr Assad exceeded the time allotted for the meeting with the most powerful leader in the world by almost two hours.

And Mr Assad clearly wooed the US leader. Before the meeting, the Syrians had said it had three purposes: to push forward the peace process, to improve bilateral US-Syrian relations and to discuss Syria's regional role. The key to the first, Syria feels, was improved relations with the US. And this was the priority.

So Mr Assad set out to impress his interlocutor with his sincerity. He has already eased restrictions on the granting of exit visas to Syria's dwindling Jewish population, restrictions which were an impediment to better relations. Now he is hoping for the kind of international recognition that he feels is his due. For the Syrian leader reckons that only by better relations with the US can he hope for pressure to be put on Israel to make a full withdrawal from Syrian territory.

A guide to reading the coffee grounds of the meeting was provided in advance by the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher. He lowered expectations of the outcome by declaring on Saturday night that 'if there is an important result we won't see it for several months. There may be something that will give some signal of the change of the attitude of the Syrians towards peace with Israel'.

Afterwards, US officials said they had been greatly encouraged by the public commitment Mr Assad made to the strategic goal of peace and his specific reference to the eventual establishment of normal relations with Israel.

Mr Clinton said that securing a Middle East settlement had always been 'one of my highest foreign policy objectives'. He said he viewed Syria as critical. The Israel-PLO accord was 'an important first step' but Syria was the key to the wider settlement.

Mr Clinton did not dodge questions about remaining problems preventing an improvement of relations between Syria and the US, notably Syria's sponsorship of groups such as the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK), Ahmed Jibril's Palestinian radicals or the Lebanese Hizbollah - the reason why Syria remains on the State Department's list of states sponsoring terrorism. He said they discussed this issue for over an hour. But he carefully avoided embarrassing Mr Assad by using the word 'terrorism'. Later, State Department officials were to say that questions were raised about Pan Am flight 103, which crashed over Lockerbie. They did not relay the Syrian response.

Mr Clinton announced a new initiative to improve relations between Syria and the US. Syria is keen to secure the capital transfers and technology currently denied it. 'We've instructed the Secretary of State and the Syrian Foreign Minister to establish a mechanism to address (bilateral) issues in detail and openly,' he said.

(Photograph omitted)