Secretary of State Colin Powell held talks with leaders of Syria and Lebanon Saturday before returning to Washington as he began a period of intensive diplomacy in support of the international "roadmap" for Middle East peace. He goes back to the region in a few days for a more extensive mission including talks with the new Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.
Mr. Powell held more than two hours of meetings with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus and reported some progress in efforts to get Syria to cease its support for radical Palestinian factions that oppose the regional peace process.
He told reporters in Beirut the Syrian leader agreed to some closures of offices the Palestinians are allowed to operate in Damascus, and also to curb access and media appearances by members of the groups in Syria.
A senior U.S. official said Mr. Powell specifically asked for steps against three groups the United States views as terrorist organizations Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the PFLP-General Command.
He said Mr. Assad took the requests under advisement and that the United States, as he put it, would watch to see if Syria is serious about a new relationship with Washington.
Mr. Powell's principal message to Syria was that there is a new strategic equation in the region with the fall of Saddam Hussein and the advent of a new reform-minded Palestinian cabinet, and that Syria should accept that reality and act accordingly.
He said while the "roadmap" to an Israeli-Palestinian peace within three years makes only limited mention of Syria and Lebanon, President Bush is intent on a comprehensive regional settlement that includes an Israeli-Lebanese agreement and an Israeli-Syrian accord that resolves the issue of the Golan Heights.
"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," he said. "They're not neglected even though they are only touched on, and not dealt with in detail in the road map."
Mr. Powell's Syria visit followed a crisis in relations with Damascus marked by U.S. complaints that Syria had allowed Arab fighters to cross into Iraq to help Saddam Hussein and had sheltered fugitives from Iraq.
But Syria has since sealed the border and promised cooperation, and the secretary made clear in Damascus there is no contemplation of the use of U.S. military force against Syria.
"The president always has a full range of political, economic, diplomatic and military options to pursue foreign policy objectives," said Mr. Powell. "But I am here to pursue diplomacy and mutual political efforts that both sides can take. So the issue of war or hostilities is not on the table."
At a news conference capping a brief stay in Beirut for talks with President Emile Lahoud and Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Mr. Powell said the United States supports a peaceful, independent Lebanon, free of all foreign forces, a reference to the Syrian troop presence in that country since the 1970s.
He said he emphasized to the Beirut leadership U.S. concern about what he said was continued terrorist activity by the pro-Iranian Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah, which also operates as a political party in Lebanon and is represented in parliament.
And he said he reiterated the long-standing U.S. call for Lebanon's central government to move security forces southward to the border with Israel, into the area vacated by Israeli troops when they withdrew in 2000, and since then effectively controlled by Hezbollah.