U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell after a brief visit to Albania, flies to Damascus later Friday, as he begins the first of two Middle East trips in rapid order to seek early progress on the international "road map" for an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord. Mr. Powell says Syria must end support for terrorism if it wants to be part of a comprehensive regional peace settlement.
Mr. Powell making his first visit to the Middle East in more than a year says the fall of Saddam Hussein and the seating of a reform-minded Palestinian cabinet has created what he calls a "new strategic dynamic" in the region which Syria should recognize and adjust its policies accordingly.
The Bush administration has had a tense relationship with Syria, underlined last month by U.S. complaints that it had allowed Arab fighters to cross into Iraq to support Saddam Hussein, and had given refuge to Iraqi fugitives.
But the crisis eased after Syria announced it has sealed its border with Iraq to all but humanitarian traffic. Mr. Powell decided to go ahead with the visit despite criticism from some in Washington that he should not engage a government that the United States has again listed as a state sponsor of terrorism.
Mr. Powell told reporters here after talks with Spanish officials that he expects candid talks on U.S. Syrian disagreements with President Bashar Assad and Foreign Minister Farouk al-Shara.
In Senate testimony Wednesday, he said the door is open to Syrian participation in the regional peace process provided it curbs support for radical Palestinian factions and Lebanese guerrillas.
"A comprehensive solution at the end of the day must include Syria and Lebanon," he said. " And if Syria wants to be part of that comprehensive solution and I believe it does President Bashar Assad has said it to me on a couple of occasions then it has to review the policies it's been following with respect to the support of terrorist activities and the control they have over forces in Lebanon that present a threat to northern Israel."
Syrian officials have welcomed the Powell visit, with Foreign Minister al-Shara saying his government wants dialogue, not ultimatums, from Washington.
But Syria is skeptical of the new peace initiative. The government newspaper Tishrin said in an editorial Thursday the international peace plan is neither a road nor a map as long as Israel refuses to withdraw from occupied territories including the Golan Heights captured from Syria in 1967.
Before heading back to Washington Saturday, Mr. Powell will also pay a brief visit to Beirut for meetings with Lebanese President Emile Lahud and Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.
The United States has long been pressing the Lebanese government to deploy its security forces to the south and help defuse the volatile situation along the border between Israeli forces and pro-Iranian Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas.
Mr. Powell begins a second phase of Middle East travels in the middle of next week when he returns to the region to meet Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the new Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas. He is also expected to consult with leaders in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt.