YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Syria, Lebanon Declare Willingness to Revive Stalemated Mideast Talks


DAMASCUS, Syria — Lebanon and Syria declared Wednesday that despite the recent violence in southern Lebanon, they both are interested in "salvaging" the Middle East peace talks--bolstering hopes that the stalemated 21-month-old negotiations can be revived virtually across the board.

The declarations came during news conferences by the two countries' top officials after several hours of discussions with U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who is in the middle of a week of shuttle diplomacy trying to instill new momentum into the talks.

The addition of Syria and Lebanon to the list of countries willing to revive the broader peace negotiations leaves only Jordan still an uncertainty. Christopher is scheduled to travel to Amman today to meet with Jordan's leader, King Hussein. He also will meet with the Israelis and Palestinians.

In a significant development, Christopher declared that on the basis of his conversations with the leaders of Syria and Israel, he has concluded that both governments now have the "seriousness of purpose" needed to make the talks work. Each country had asked Christopher for his assessment of the other.

Christopher's shuttle diplomacy took a dramatic turn Wednesday when he made a surprise trip to Lebanon to confer with Lebanese leaders. He took the trip in a harrowing high-speed drive through the Bekaa Valley in an armored convoy that included vans with special machine-gun turrets.

In an effort to ease the pain of last week's violence, Christopher announced that the United States will provide aid for those Lebanese who were driven from their homes by the Israeli attacks, both by diverting funds now earmarked for food and by sending a fully equipped army field hospital.

Syria's call for continuation of the peace talks came from Foreign Minister Farouk Shareh, who told reporters that Christopher's visit to the region--and his success in brokering a cease-fire to end last week's violence--"might help (to) salvage the peace process."

Asked whether there had been any progress in the talks, Shareh replied, "We can't talk about any progress now after the shelling and bombardment." But he added that "after the great efforts exerted . . . we hope that Mr. Christopher will be able to give new energy and vitalize the peace process."

Christopher's discussions in Damascus included talks with Syrian President Hafez Assad, who is regarded as a key player in influencing each of the various negotiating tracks. Syria was said to have played a major role in helping Christopher bring about the cease-fire last week.

U.S. officials said the secretary also promised all sides in the peace process that the United States will step up its role as an "active intermediary" in the negotiations, serving as a go-between in each of the talks and trying to help both sides work toward a compromise.

That stance marks a more hands-on role than Washington played in previous talks. Officials said Christopher concluded that the talks were now at a stage where all sides "now want us to play that role, and that they think they need that."

Christopher told reporters Wednesday that although he had discussed "ways to break the deadlock" in his talks with the Syrians, he had not brought Damascus any specific proposals from the Israelis.

"We're not at that stage of the discussion," he said. "We're at the stage of asking questions, probing, exchanging information . . . trying to assist the parties rather than exchanging proposals."

He also continued to be cautious in assessing how quickly the various sides might be able to make progress in their individual talks. "I think, myself, that recent events have salvaged the peace process, and that we are back on track," he said. "I wouldn't want to be more optimistic than that."

Besides conferring in Damascus with Assad and Shareh, Christopher met in Beirut with Lebanese President Elias Hrawi, Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and Foreign Minister Faris Bouez. Hariri echoed Shareh's sentiments, saying that "despite recent events, we will be able to continue the (peace) process."

The peace talks comprise four separate but parallel sets of negotiations, between Israel and Jordan, Israel and Lebanon, Israel and Syria and Israel and the Palestinians. The latter two have been stalemated for several weeks.

Separately, Christopher praised Lebanon for deploying its army to the southern part of the country to help U.N. forces there. He hinted that if Beirut was to resubmit its longstanding request for military aid, the Administration "would look at it in a good light."

Los Angeles Times Articles