CHTOURA, Lebanon — Succeeding where he had failed a day earlier, Secretary of State Warren Christopher had four hours of talks with Syrian President Hafez Assad on Wednesday and then traveled under heavily armed guard to Lebanon to meet with top leaders of this war-torn country.
Afterward, the secretary of state voiced optimism that a cease-fire may soon be at hand between Israel and the Hezbollah militia it is fighting in Lebanon.
"Although difficult problems remain, we are drawing closer together, and some of the gaps are being narrowed," Christopher told reporters. A senior U.S. official suggested that talks between Israel and Syria, which is the dominant military power in Lebanon, are now at a make-or-break point.
There was no indication that the United States has obtained any support for its efforts to win protection from Hezbollah attacks for the Israel Defense Forces and the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army. Christopher suggested that whatever agreement he works out will protect civilians rather than military units, in both northern Israel and Lebanon.
Christopher had flown to Damascus on Tuesday to see Assad, only to be told that the Syrian president was not available. Later that day, he was forced to cancel plans to visit Beirut when Defense Department officials told him the situation there was too dangerous.
On Wednesday, things went much more smoothly. Returning to Damascus, the Syrian capital, from Jerusalem, Christopher was escorted immediately to the presidential palace for talks with Assad.
Syria maintains 35,000 troops in Lebanon, giving it the power to stop arms shipments to the Iranian-backed Hezbollah guerrillas, and the United States has said repeatedly that it needs Assad's cooperation to arrange a cease-fire.
State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns hinted that the secretary of state may have voiced a protest over Assad's refusal to see him the previous day.
"He had a one-on-one with Assad . . . in which he raised the scheduling issue privately with Assad, in which he made his point of view clear. He also talked about how we can move forward," Burns said.
Asked what the scheduling issue was, the spokesman replied, "Obviously, we don't want to get into the thing."
Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shareh heatedly denied that Assad's refusal to see Christopher on Tuesday was meant as a snub.
"Secretary Christopher is always welcome in Damascus," Shareh said. "The [stories] in the [American] media, which were trying to say something impolite in the relations between Mr. Christopher and Syria, were without any foundation. They were baseless."
Christopher drove Wednesday through Lebanon's Syrian-controlled Bekaa Valley to Chtoura. He was escorted by 350 members of the Lebanese armed forces, as well as about 30 members of a Lebanese militia that has been hired to guard the U.S. Embassy in Beirut.
In this small town at the foot of snow-covered mountains, Christopher met with Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and National Assembly Speaker Nabih Berri. The secretary told a news conference afterward that he had come to "demonstrate America's deep concern for the Lebanese people."
Hariri said he thinks the long-term goal should be "to restore the situation . . . where there are no foreign troops in Lebanon."
During Christopher's meeting with the Lebanese leaders, there was a brief power failure, and the lights went out. One U.S. official admitted later that it had been a tense moment. "For two or three seconds, you wondered what the hell was going on," he said.
In Washington, President Clinton expressed hope that negotiators were "quite close" to a cease-fire agreement.
"I've just got some encouraging news that I can't announce now," Clinton told reporters prior to a meeting with Lebanese President Elias Hrawi. "I've learned the hard way to understate rather than overstate where we are."
Times staff writer Norman Kempster in Washington contributed to this report.