Albright Asks Syria to Urge Hezbollah Restraint

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Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, in her first extensive meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad, urged him Wednesday to discourage Hezbollah guerrillas from disrupting an attempted cease-fire between Israelis and Palestinians.

Albright said Assad made no commitments. “He took it on board,” she said. “I can’t say that there was more than that.”

Hezbollah, a Muslim militia based in Lebanon, where Syria is the de facto ruler, recently kidnapped three Israeli soldiers and an Israeli businessman. Although not directly involved in the 3-week-old confrontation between Israelis and Palestinians, the guerrilla group is capable of provoking action by the Jewish state that could damage efforts to end the violence.


Albright and Assad met one-on-one for 90 minutes following a 50-minute session with aides. It was the first serious discussion by a ranking U.S. official with the new Syrian leader, who took power in July. Albright met Assad briefly during the June 13 funeral of his father and predecessor, Hafez Assad.

“I did enjoy my conversation with him and it was fairly wide-ranging, not rhetorical and structured,” Albright told reporters aboard her aircraft on the way back to Washington. A generation of U.S. diplomats had complained privately that Hafez Assad’s style was both rhetorical and structured.

“He is a modern person,” Albright said of Bashar Assad. In making a point about regional conflicts, she said, the Syrian leader remarked that “you have to make sure you’re not using IBM software in an Apple computer.”

Assad was in Saudi Arabia as part of a tour of the Persian Gulf region. Albright, who was briefing the kingdom’s leaders on the Israeli-Palestinian summit held this week in Egypt, took the opportunity to discuss a wide range of regional issues with him.

A U.S. official who attended a portion of the meeting and later briefed reporters said Assad showed no interest in an early resumption of Syrian peace talks with Israel, which broke down in January.

Assad said he and other Arab leaders had to take into account the anger of the Arab masses, who consider recent Israeli police and military actions against Palestinian rioters excessive.


Earlier Wednesday, Albright met with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah to outline the Israeli-Palestinian agreement reached the day before.

Riyadh, the Saudi capital, was the only stop for Albright on her way home from the summit at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik. U.S. officials said other Arab regimes were being briefed by telephone on the accord, which calls on the Israelis and Palestinians to take concrete actions to restore calm and move toward restarting peace talks.

U.S. officials are concerned that an Arab League summit scheduled for this weekend in Cairo will inflame the situation and disrupt peace efforts.

“It is unlikely that the summit will reach a good outcome,” said a senior State Department official, who added that the Israeli-Palestinian accord “works or doesn’t work on the streets.”

According to another U.S. official who attended Albright’s predawn talks with the Saudi prince, Abdullah endorsed the objective of the accord while avoiding any promise to support the details. The official’s account of what he called “a very good meeting” was a stark contrast to the anti-Israel invective in the government-controlled Saudi press.

The official, who along with the others traveling with Albright declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the situation, said the secretary of State and Abdullah exhibited “mutually felt pain and anguish at the events over the past weeks.”


But their sympathies were not quite in sync.

Abdullah emphasized his concern for Palestinian casualties during three weeks of violence in which more than 100 people have been killed, all but a handful of them Palestinians or Arab Israelis. Albright, the official said, “expressed her revulsion” at the lynching of two Israeli soldiers who last Thursday blundered into the Palestinian-controlled West Bank city of Ramallah.

If longshot efforts to resume Israeli-Palestinian peace talks succeed, Saudi Arabia will play a key role behind the scenes in tackling the most difficult issue: the future of Jerusalem.

U.S. officials acknowledge that any deal covering a city considered sacred by Jews and Muslims will require at least tacit support of the Islamic world, especially the Saudis.