DAMASCUS - US Secretary of State Colin Powell meets Syrian President Bashar al-Assad today to demand that Syria conform with the US vision for the post-Iraq war Middle East and stop supporting anti-Israel guerrillas.
But Syria has made clear it wants dialogue and not ultimatums from the United States.
Powell, on his first Middle East trip since US-led troops overthrew Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, says his message is that change in Iraq and the prospect of peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians creates a "new strategic dynamic" in the region.
He told reporters on his plane between the Albanian capital Tirana and Damascus that if Syria did not change its policies, it could face sanctions under a Syria Accountability Act revived in the US Congress and the USA Patriot Act of 2001.
Powell has bitter memories of a visit to Damascus in early 2001, when he thought he had a promise from Assad that Syria would stop buying Iraqi oil in violation of UN sanctions.
But Syria continued to import up to 200,000 barrels a day of discounted Iraqi oil by pipeline until the United States began the invasion of Iraq in March. The trade earned Syria hundreds of millions of dollars a year in net profit.
"I got an assurance two years ago. I will always have that in the background software and on my hard drive," he said.
Powell's visit follows a period of tension between Washington and Damascus over allegations that Syria was trying to thwart US plans during the Iraq campaign by letting Iraqi fugitives into Syria and military equipment into Iraq.
But he told reporters that he now wanted to talk about the future, with the emphasis on whether Syria would co-operate with the Middle East peace plan or "road map" which international mediators gave to the Israelis and Palestinians this week.
Syria has an indirect role through its links with the Lebanese group Hizbollah and the Palestinian groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which have rejected the peace plan as tipped in Israel's favour.
"What I am looking for is...whether or not, as a result of the exchange that we have tomorrow, we start to see specific action and performance on the part of the Syrian government that would reflect understanding of this new situation and how they are going to respond to it," Powell said.
Asked what would happen if Syria failed to meet US demands, he said: "If they don't meet any of them, that will be taken into account as we decide on our future strategy. These are decisions we will take after we see the performances."
Analysts say Syrian support for Hizbollah and the Palestinian radicals is meant as leverage with Israel to recover the Golan Heights, its main concern for many years. Israel captured the Golan from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war.
Powell, asked what he could offer on the Golan, said: "The United States would be anxious to work with the parties and find a solution as part of the overall comprehensive settlement. You have to be prepared to listen to the points of views of others and that's what I intend to do."
Under the previous administration of US President Bill Clinton, the United States was an active mediator between Israel and Syria and almost brought about a peace agreement including Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights.
But the atmosphere has changed under the Bush administration, which says it is waging a "global war on terrorism" and is sympathetic to the Israeli view that the guerrilla groups are terrorists to be eliminated.
The United States has long included Syria on its list of what it calls "state sponsors of terrorism" and tensions rose sharply this year over US allegations that Syria had left its border with Iraq open to fugitive Iraqi leaders and was letting military equipment and Arab volunteers into Iraq.
In Madrid on Thursday Powell said he did not expect any immediate results from his visit to Syria.
Later on Saturday, Powell makes a short stop in Beirut before flying home. He is expected to return to the Middle East next week to meet the Israelis and Palestinians.
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