Secretary of State Colin Powell met Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus on the first of what will be two trips to the region in the span of a week aimed at early progress on the international "roadmap" for Middle East peace. He was to stop in Lebanon later Saturday and return to the Middle East for a more extensive visit and talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders next week.
Mr. Powell made a public assurance as he began his meetings here that the United States wants the "road map" to lead to a comprehensive regional peace, including a settlement of differences between Israel and Syria.
He told reporters that while the United States had "serious concerns" about some actions taken by the Damascus government during the Iraq crisis, the notion of U.S. military action against Syria as a follow-up to the Iraq war is not on the Bush administration's agenda. "The President always has a full range of political, economic, diplomatic and military options to pursue foreign policy objectives. But I am here to pursue diplomacy, and mutual political efforts that both sides can be taking. And so the issue of war, hostilities, is not on the table," he said.
Mr. Powell said he hopes Syrian authorities will recognize what the termed the "changed strategic context" in the region with the fall of Saddam Hussein and the advent of a reformist Palestinian cabinet and support U.S.-led peace efforts, which he said will not ignore Syria and its interests. "Our goal remains the same: ultimately to bring into being a Palestinian state, and at the same time to work with Syria and Lebanon to make sure that those tracks do not appear to be neglected. They're not neglected even though they are only touched on, and not dealt with in detail in the road map," he said.
He said the United States wants Syria to cease its support for rejectionist Palestinian factions based in Damascus and for anti-Israel Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.
He told reporters Friday on his plane enroute to Damascus that if Syria did not change its policies, it could face anti-terrorism sanctions under the USA Patriot Act of 2001 and the proposed Syria Accountability Act, which failed in Congress last year but has been revived by a bipartisan group of legislators.
The official Syrian media say the change in the international situation will not push Syria to make compromises on its land and rights, a reference to Israel's occupation since 1967 of the strategic Golan Heights.