DAMASCUS, Syria – In the days before Secretary of State Colin Powell's (search ) visit to Damascus, Syria has given indications it wants to avoid a collision course with Washington.
It has sealed its border with Iraq. It has expelled more than 30 Iraqis, many from Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit (search). It coordinated with the Americans the departure from Syria of one-time Iraqi intelligence official Farouk Hijazi (search), who is now in U.S. custody.
And its leadership and state-run newspapers are putting a positive spin on Powell's trip, scheduled to begin Friday.
Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa said Thursday during a brief visit to Beirut that Syria (search) is open to dialogue with Washington in a "spirit that does not emanate out of hostility or one that meets the demands of others."
The daily Al-Thawra newspaper said Wednesday that it hopes "Powell's visit would achieve the hoped-for positive results and would be a real start for U.S.-Syrian relations."
Just weeks earlier, the Bush administration accused Syria of aiding Saddam by supplying war material, and suggested that U.S. troops would march from Iraq into Syria.
Powell's stop in Damascus comes at a critical crossroad, at a time when the United States is trying to pull Iraq back together and pursue an Israel-Palestinian peace agreement. The trip's outcome could determine whether U.S.-Syrian relations, which have survived decades of tensions, would finally break or grow closer.
If Powell's visit goes badly, Syria will have huge problems in the United States that could set it on the same course that led to military action against Iraq. U.S. conservatives are trying to push a Syria sanctions act in Congress.
If Powell is able to walk away from his meeting with President Bashar Assad with firm promises of cooperation on Iraq and the Mideast peace process, then the Syrians will find greater sympathy in Washington.
"President Bashar needs to work very seriously with the secretary," said Edward Walker, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel. "The secretary is the one guy in this administration that can prevent more aggressive actions that some people would like to take."
Walker, president of the Washington-based Middle East Institute, said the Syrians should "be very careful" not to cut Powell again the way they did on his last visit to Syria in April 2002 when they promised not to receive oil through an Iraqi pipeline that runs to Syria's Mediterranean coast, but continued to.
Observers say the Syrians have to make hard choices and fast -- a trait that is alien to a society that favors slow change -- because of recent friction with the United States.
The Syrian-U.S. tensions began months before the Iraq war started, with reports that military hardware was crossing from Syria into Iraq. The Americans brought the issue up with the Syrians, who denied the allegations.
After the war began in March, the Bush administration became furious by reports that weapons transfers were continuing and that Syria was facilitating the travel of Muslim fighters into Iraq.
That led to unusually harsh accusations by top Bush officials that Syria was sheltering Iraqi fugitives, possessed chemical weapons and supported terrorism.
U.S. officials began exerting intense pressure, telling Damascus that sanctions could result unless Syria cooperated -- which it did, earning praise from President Bush.
Analysts in Syria said Damascus is ready to build relations with Washington that are based on dialogue.
"There's nothing that's not open for dialogue," said Fayez Sayegh, former head of Syria's broadcast services and deputy head of the Journalists' Union. "There's a Syrian desire for focusing on common denominators that could develop between Syria and the United States."
Powell will seek assurances that the Iraqi-Syrian border would remain closed to weapons and fugitives, that any Iraqis on U.S. wanted lists already in Syria would be expelled and that the Syrians will not meddle in Iraq the way they did in Lebanon.
Powell also is expected to raise concern over the offices kept by several Palestinian factions, including the militant Islamic Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which the U.S. administration has classified as terrorists.
The Syrians have repeatedly denied that planning for anti-Israel attacks takes place in the Damascus offices. But Powell will expect the Syrians to make clear to the groups that if they cross the line they would be expelled.
Another issue that Powell will discuss is the Lebanese Hezbollah guerrilla group, which led the fight against Israel's occupation of a strip in south Lebanon. The Israelis pulled out in May 2000.
Damascus says the groups are wage a legitimate campaing of resistance. Al-Sharaa reiterated that stance Thursday and insisted the talks with Powell "should be focused on the Israeli occupation in the first place rather than on those who are resisting the occupation."
Powell will also seek Syrian support for the peace process and for the newly formed Palestinian government.
Said Walker: "We would like them to be an active participant in the overall peace process so that we can get this Palestinian thing behind us and then turn our attention to the ... Syrian Golan Heights," which Israel has occupied since 1967.