Syrian President Hafez Assad delivered an extraordinary snub to Secretary of State Warren Christopher Tuesday, declining to receive him at a critical stage of his delicate diplomatic mission to achieve a lasting cease-fire in Lebanon.
American officials were at a loss to explain Assad’s refusal to make himself available. They attributed it to possible exhaustion from seeing so many visitors this week, or perhaps time pressures because he wanted to give closer scrutiny to the latest version of U.S. proposals to end a 13-day-old Israeli offensive against Shiite Muslim guerrillas in Lebanon.
But it was the third time in four days that Assad had forced Christopher to cool his heels, in what seemed to be a gesture of humiliation. On two earlier occasions, Assad made Christopher wait a couple of hours while he held court with Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov.
After seeing Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres twice Tuesday morning in Jerusalem, Christopher flew here eager to get Syrian responses to Israeli ideas designed to push the American plan toward a final settlement. The proclaimed U.S. goal is a written document that would halt the rocket and artillery fire between Israel and Lebanese Shiite guerrillas and prevent future attacks.
Assad’s decision not to see Christopher, whatever its explanation, served to underline Syrian reluctance to embrace the accord put forward by the United States and Israel.
The Syrians explained that Assad would be busy welcoming Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and hosting a state dinner for her Tuesday night. Christopher was disappointed, aides said, because he saw this session as a crucial point in his shuttle mission.
Nonetheless, Christopher accepted the Syrians at their word and agreed to reschedule the meeting for this morning.