Prince Bandar ibn Sultan, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Washington and one of the desert kingdom's top diplomatic trouble-shooters, flew to Damascus on Saturday to try to persuade Syria to support U.S. mediation between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
A senior Saudi diplomat told reporters in Washington that Bandar plans to brief Syrian President Hafez Assad on the results of Saudi King Fahd's weeklong visit to Washington, which ended Friday.
The diplomat predicted that Washington will become more active in the Middle East peace process in the months to come. He said President Reagan is in a good position to take the initiative because "he is known to be very friendly to the Israelis, so he can do anything he wants without being accused" of anti-Israeli bias.
"It is very important for him (Assad) to understand the attitude of the Americans, just as it is important for the Americans to understand his attitude," the diplomat said.
Bandar's trip coincides with what appeared to be a U.S. overture toward the Syrians.
Only a year or two ago, U.S. officials were accusing Syria of instigating terrorist attacks on the U.S. Embassy and Marine Corps barracks in Beirut. But Friday, the State Department heaped praise on the Damascus regime for helping kidnaped American journalist Jeremy Levin reach freedom.
"We are very appreciative of the Syrian government's role in this matter," State Department spokesman Edward Djerejian said.
Not Carrying Letter
The Saudi diplomat said Bandar, a nephew of the king, is not carrying a letter from the U.S. government to the Syrians. But he said the prince will relay to Assad the matters discussed by Fahd and Reagan.
A joint communique issued after the Reagan-Fahd talks said the United States and Saudi Arabia agreed on the need for a Middle East peace, although they did not agree on how it can be brought about. Reagan called for direct negotiations between Israel and its Arab adversaries, while Fahd reiterated a plan advanced by the Arab League calling for total Israeli withdrawal from all occupied territory, including the eastern sector of Jerusalem.
The diplomat was asked if Fahd and Reagan agreed to any sort of specific proposal that could be relayed to Syria. He responded: "From our perspective, just having everybody have the right attitude about each other is quite enough for a start. We found we couldn't get anywhere without that."
U.S. a 'Full Partner'
One purpose of the trip, the diplomat said, is to convince the Syrians that the United States "is going to be a full partner" in peace negotiations. He said that in recent years, the Syrians have developed "a perception that the Americans were just passing messages back and forth."
In his public statements in Washington, Fahd urged the United States to become more active diplomatically in the Middle East than it has been since the withdrawal of the Marines from Lebanon last year.
The diplomat said the United States "has been active--just not in the physical way we have all been used to . . . . We would like them to do more."
Asked if anything was said during the Reagan-Fahd meetings that Assad might consider a favorable development, the diplomat said, "I think he will be happy to hear that the Golan is not the exception to the rule"--referring to Washington's belief that Israel should return territory captured during the Six-Day War of 1967 in exchange for a peace treaty and recognition of secure borders.
U.S. Stand on Golan
In 1982, Israel annexed the Golan Heights, which it captured from Syria in 1967. The United States has said previously that it considers the Golan to be covered by U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, which calls for Israel and its Arab neighbors to exchange territory for peace. But Reagan did not mention the former Syrian territory in his Sept. 1, 1982, peace initiative proposing the establishment of a Palestinian "entity" in association with Jordan in the West Bank of the Jordan River and Gaza Strip territories. Prior to 1967, the West Bank was controlled by Jordan and the Gaza Strip by Egypt.
Israel returned virtually all the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt as part of its peace treaty with that country. But Israel is not willing to give up all the West Bank, Gaza and Golan territories. Some Israeli leaders have indicated that they may be willing to return some territory, but others insist on holding virtually all of the occupied territory still under Israeli control.
The Saudi diplomat said Reagan and Fahd genuinely liked each other's company. "It looked as if they had known each other for 20 years," he said. "We think that is very important."