WASHINGTON — Secretary of State George P. Shultz "most likely" will visit Syria when he goes to the Middle East next week and is leaving his options open for a return to the region after a NATO summit meeting in early March, U.S. officials said today.
As Shultz set out for Moscow on a trip in which he will seek Soviet backing for his peacemaking venture, his Mideast journey was taking on dramatic new proportions.
Shultz's purpose in going to Damascus would be to discuss the U.S. drive for Arab-Israeli negotiations with President Hafez Assad, whose support for any long-term settlement in the Middle East is considered essential by specialists in the State Department's Near East bureau.
Boost for Syria
The visit would be a major prestige boost to Syria and mark an improvement in its relations with the United States. The country is one of six listed by the State Department as a supporter of terrorism, and President Reagan imposed sanctions against it in November, 1986.
The State Department had linked Syria to 40 incidents of terrorism. Reagan said the sanctions were intended to express "outrage" at what he called Syria's involvement in international terrorism--charges the Syrians denied.
Among the punitive measures was a ban on high-level meetings with Syrians. But Shultz sent Richard W. Murphy, the head of the Near East bureau, to Damascus two weeks ago to confer with Assad.
U.S. Ambassador William L. Eagleton Jr. was sent back to his post in Damascus last September, after a year's absence, and U.N. Ambassador Vernon A. Walters also visited the country.
Shultz's other stops next week will be Egypt, Jordan, Israel and probably Saudi Arabia. He is trying to set up negotiations between Israel and a mixed delegation of Jordanians and Palestinians to deal especially with the troubled West Bank and Gaza.
The immediate aim is some form of self-rule for the 1.5 million Palestinian Arabs who have lived under Israeli control since Egypt and Jordan lost the territories in the 1967 Six-Day War.
The long-range goal is to hold a second stage of talks--possibly in the format of an international peace conference--by the end of the year to consider an overall settlement.
Shultz's separate trip to the Soviet Union began today with a flight to Finland.