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News Analysis; Aware of Risks, Clinton Advisers Downplay Significance of Syria Trip

The last time an American president visited Syria, the flight there was a turbulent one.

President Richard Nixon was on his way to Damascus in 1974, soon after the Yom Kippur War, which had devastated Israel and left the Middle East crackling with hostility.

Relations between the United States and Syria were such that when the Air Force One pilot saw four Syrian fighter planes approaching, he took evasive action. Convinced he was under attack, he plunged the plane into a nose dive, tossing administration officials around, according to some who were on the plane.

The pilot was subsequently told that the fighter jets were just an unannounced escort, and the plane landed safely.

President Clinton’s advisers were hoping for a smoother ride this week. But while Nixon came away from his meeting with President Hafez Assad with renewed diplomatic ties between the United States and Syria — ties that were broken off after 1967 — Clinton’s aides were keeping expectations low for his trip to Damascus this week.

Clinton himself, under sharp criticism from some members of Congress for his plans to visit Syria, downplayed the significance of his trip.

“I don’t expect a major breakthrough. I want to caution the American people about that going in,” Clinton told a Cleveland radio station before leaving for the Middle East this week.

As he prepared to depart for his first Middle East tour as president, State Department and White House officials remained sharply divided on the wisdom of Clinton’s visit to Damascus.

It was a trip fraught with risk, both on the domestic and foreign fronts.

His mere presence in Syria automatically raised the expectations and hopes that come when a sitting president takes a direct involvement in the peace process. But his presence there also ran the risk of lending legitimacy to a regime that the United States itself has condemned.

Middle East advisers pressed for the session with Assad, hoping that direct presidential involvement will somehow push Israel and Syria closer to peace. However, some senior White House aides feared the president could lose face in the foreign policy arena if the overture falls flat.

Clinton met with Assad once before, in Geneva in January 1993. White House officials were banking on Assad’s pledge after the president’s trip was announced that he will “not embarrass the president.”

TRIP IS ‘AN INVESTMENT IN PEACE’

They were also counting on the fact that by now, Assad has already taken several public steps toward reconciliation. These include allowing Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa to be interviewed by Israel Television and broadcasting the signing of the Washington Declaration last July, a step that led to the peace treaty signed by Israel and Jordan this week.

A senior administration official said Clinton’s trip comes at a crossroads in the peace process. Although Clinton’s meeting with Assad was risky, some feared that the Syrian leader would retreat from the peace process if he felt slighted by Clinton’s refusing his invitation to visit Damascus.

However, this official cautioned that the trip is “an investment in peace, rather than an expectation of a breakthrough.”

But while the White House continued to paint the trip as a foreign policy gamble with the chance that it could lead to significant break throughs down the road, some members of Congress accused Clinton of coddling Assad.

They charged that he was not exacting enough concessions in return for the high profile the Syrian leader will receive for hosting an American president.

Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) said “there is no justification for the president to be meeting with Hafez Assad in Damascus.”

Lowey, a staunchly pro-Israel member of Congress, called on Syria to “break with the terrorists, announce that it accepts Israel, and stop saying that it wants the Golan Heights as a precondition for peace.

“At that point, we can talk. Until then, no U.S. president should be enhancing the prestige of Hafez Assad by visiting him in Damascus.”

Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.) called on Clinton to remember that when he “shakes the hand of Hafez Assad, he is shaking the hand of someone who is obstructing the Middle East peace process.”

The State Department includes Syria on its lists of nations that sponsor terrorism and narcotics trafficking. Assad has made no secret of his desire to get Syria removed from these lists and in good graces with Foggy Bottom.

Administration officials have expressed little doubt that Assad’s latest overture toward peace with Israel is because he sees “the road to Washington through Jerusalem.”

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Syria has seen its major source of military hardware and aid fall. The United States has meanwhile blocked American trade and World Bank loans to Damascus.

Secretary of State Warren Christopher laid future U.S.-Syria relations on the line in a speech earlier this week at Georgetown University.

HIGH RISKS WITH POTENTIAL HIGH GAINS

“In an environment of genuine and comprehensive peace in which there’ll be no place for terrorists on Israel’s borders, we can look to the day when relations between Syria and the United States will improve,” Christopher said.

Regardless of the outcome of Clinton’s meeting, observers here believe it will not strongly influence the upcoming congressional elections, where Clinton’s popularity is a major issue.

“What happens in Damascus will not affect how American people vote in the Congressional elections,” said Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“If Clinton leaves without Syrian concessions, many in the region will view this as a condoning of Syrian policy, whether or not it was intended that way. This trip is a high risk with a potential for a high gain,” he said.

Clinton’s meeting with Assad was, of course, just one stop on a tightly packed Middle East tour. He was scheduled to meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat on Wednesday in Cairo before attending the signing of the Israel-Jordan peace treaty in the Arava that day.

Wednesday evening Clinton planned to address the Jordanian Parliament and meet privately with King Hussein. The Clinton-Assad meeting was set for Thursday morning. Clinton was then scheduled to go to Israel to address the Israeli Knesset and afterward meet with Israeli President Ezer Weizman and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Clinton planned to visit Yad Vashem and other parts of Jerusalem on Friday before speaking to U.S. troops stationed in Kuwait.

Before returning to Washington on Friday night, Clinton planned to stop in Saudi Arabia for a meeting with King Fahd.

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