DAMASCUS, Syria — At the height of President Clinton's European tour last week, the 14 million residents of this highly structured, tightly controlled nation were bombarded with news of an event of historic--even epic--proportions.
"A meeting between the two giants," declared one of the state-run daily newspapers that deliver Syria's official line each day.
"A strategic turning point that will decide the future of the region for years to come," announced another.
"Over the past 20 years, no summit between two world leaders has received as much attention as this," proclaimed a third.
The focus of the hyperbolic Syrian spin was not Clinton's meeting with Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, an event that merited barely a mention here in the capital of a nation that was once among Moscow's closest Middle East allies. Nor was it the nuclear disarmament treaty signed by Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk last week.
The event that was the subject of Damascus' rhetorical blizzard was the summit scheduled to begin at 9:30 a.m. today in Geneva between Clinton and Hafez Assad, the authoritarian Syrian president who has outlasted five of his American counterparts and a litany of U.S. legislation aimed at isolating his regime.
So intense was the hype and so high are the expectations surrounding today's summit that everyone from Clinton Administration officials in Washington to the diplomatic corps and Syria's intellectual elite in Damascus found themselves trying to temper it.
They have warned that the Clinton-Assad meeting is unlikely to produce an immediate, concrete breakthrough in the stalled Middle East peace process, nor will it alter overnight America's strained relations with a nation that it has long viewed as a renegade.
Yet among even the most cynical of those analysts, officials and diplomats stressed that the meeting will likely be a landmark of the Mideast's painful path to peace--a watershed that most agreed will help pave the way for a future peace agreement between Israel and its most bitter, best-armed neighbor.
"You're not going to come up with a peace treaty in a three-hour meeting," one Western diplomat said in Damascus. "In the next three to six months, you will see something. The peace process demands they do something. And this meeting is the first real key to unlocking the impasse."
Sadik Azm, a Damascus University professor and prominent Syrian intellectual, agreed. "There is a consensus now that this peace agreement is going to go through. Not immediately--maybe in three months or six months. Maybe a year. But this is the first time there has been this kind of certainty here. There is skepticism, resignation and some healthy cynicism. But there also is optimism, in the sense that this meeting opens up a bold new game. It is a turning point."
The official mood in Damascus continued to be decidedly upbeat on the eve of the summit.
"We are optimistic," Information Minister Muhamed Salman told The Times in a rare interview Saturday night in Damascus.
Outlining the basic position Assad will bring to the summit table today, Salman said: "Syria considers Israel its enemy because Israel occupies part of its land, and also Israel occupies part of Lebanon's land. When Israel will withdraw from the occupied territories, there will be some change for Syria.
"But nobody should expect Syria will compromise on its land."
In Jerusalem, Israeli Environment Minister Yossi Sarid said Saturday that Israel will give back all of the Golan Heights--the strategic plateau that Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East War--if Syria pledges that it is ready for full peace and normal relations, the Associated Press reported.
Salman repeated Syria's harsh criticism of the agreement for limited Palestinian autonomy in the Gaza Strip and Jericho signed in September by Israel and Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization, which broke ranks from Syria and the other Arab delegations in the peace process to negotiate the accord in secret.
"Peace cannot be in pieces," he said, echoing Assad's longstanding demand for a comprehensive peace settlement between Israel and all its neighbors simultaneously. "After the Gaza-Jericho agreement, the situation worsened in the occupied territories, and it spread more instability through the region."
But Salman concluded on a positive note. "We really seek and cling to peace."
And, when asked whether the Syrian people would support any such agreement with Israel, Salman said: "The trust President Hafez Assad enjoys from his people will make the majority of the people back all of the steps the president takes."
It is not the first such meeting between an American President and the cunning, calculating Syrian leader whose name means "lion" but whose shrewd tactics more often are likened to those of a fox.
It is an event that Washington insiders and Syrian analysts described as a task fraught with far more risks for Clinton than for Assad.