After more than a year of deteriorating relations with Syria, the Reagan Administration has proposed to the Damascus regime that they begin a dialogue on a range of issues, including terrorism and the Middle East peace process.
The White House said Friday that Syrian President Hafez Assad's response was "generally positive" to a letter from Reagan proposing the talks.
"This was really a decision to open the door a bit and take some new probes as to a possible dialogue," White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said.
According to Administration officials, the Reagan proposal followed a high-level reappraisal of relations with Damascus based on recent Syrian efforts to maintain order in troubled areas of Lebanon and steps to distance itself from terrorist groups.
'Change in Attitude'
"In a number of these areas we believe that there was enough change in their attitude to suggest that a dialogue might be productive," Fitzwater said.
One official said the Administration had been heartened by Syria's efforts to bring about the release of Charles Glass, an American journalist kidnaped in Beirut last week. Syria's intervention apparently led to the release of two Lebanese men, including the son of Lebanon's defense minister, who were kidnaped along with Glass. The official Syrian news media sharply criticized the abductions.
The Administration official said it is now hoped that Syria can play a pivotal role in efforts to free the other American hostages being held in Lebanon. Officials believe that some of the captives may be held in the eastern Bekaa Valley, an area under Syrian army control.
In addition, Western diplomats have reported that Syria ordered a terrorist Palestinian faction headed by Abu Nidal to close down two so-called liaison offices in Damascus, a move that had long been sought by the Reagan Administration.
U.S. Recalls Envoy
Last November, the Administration recalled to Washington the American ambassador to Syria, William L. Eagleton Jr., as a demonstration of support for the British had severed diplomatic relations with Syria after alleging official Syrian involvement in a plot to blow up an Israeli airliner at London's Heathrow Airport. American businesses were also ordered to leave Syria.
The Syrians were also accused of indirect involvement in terrorist acts ranging from attacks on airports in Rome and Vienna to the assassination of Middle East political figures and diplomats.
The White House spokesman said that Eagleton will not be returned to his post in Damascus, where the embassy staff has been sharply curtailed in recent months. But Fitzwater confirmed that Reagan has offered to send an envoy to Damascus to begin negotiations about improving relations.
Relationship With Assad
U.S. officials said the leading candidate to visit Damascus is Richard W. Murphy, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, who is a former U.S. ambassador to Damascus and who has a cordial personal relationship with Assad. Another possible candidate could be U.N. Ambassador Vernon A. Walters, a Reagan trouble-shooter who has visited Damascus in the past seeking the release of American hostages in Lebanon.
At the State Department, spokesman Charles Redman emphasized that the sending of a special envoy is a "one-time step" and should not be taken as a reversal of the sanctions imposed by the United States last November.
Under questioning, Redman acknowledged that Syria remains on the list of nations accused of sponsoring international terrorism. But he also pointed out that Syria is an "important country" that would have an "important role to play in any overall Middle East peace settlement."
One of Few Iran Allies
Administration officials said the timing of the overture to Damascus may be connected with signs that Syria is beginning to reassess its relations with Iran, primarily because of Iranian support for radical Shia Muslim groups in Lebanon that have been carrying out kidnapings and continuing to challenge Syria's authority in Beirut. Syria has been one of the few nations to support non-Arab Iran in its nearly seven-year war with Iraq.
The Damascus government sent at least 7,500 troops to Beirut earlier this year to contain militia anarchy, but large areas south of the city remain outside Syrian control and are havens for hundreds of armed Shia Muslim radicals belonging to Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Party of God.
Times staff writer Don Shannon in Washington also contributed to this article.