"I sense a very serious intent on the part of the Syrian government to pursue an active peace process," Baker said before flying to Moscow last night. "We think a window of opportunity . . . in the aftermath of the gulf crisis . . . should be seized."
Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa, who held a joint news conference with Baker yesterday, said the war with Iraq - which forged an unprecedented coalition of Arab nations with the West and Israel - offered a good starting point for new cooperation in the region.
"We are optimistic for the future . . . and hope to give the momentum to the peace process," Sharaa said.
A senior State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Syrian officials assured Baker that their still-hostile relationship with Israel was in an evolutionary stage.
"It was noted that their position on peace has, in fact, changed," said the official, who is traveling with Baker.
"In the past, the Syrian position was the absence of war - meaning no normalization, no relations, in fact, not even recognition - in return for everything," he said. "The point that was raised was that they are committed to a genuine peace."
Despite its declared new interests in peace and arms control, Syria is taking no chances in the interim period, continuing to prepare itself militarily.
During his airport news conference, Baker said the United States believed that Syria recently received a new shipment of Soviet-made Scud missiles. Israeli sources have said the shipment came from North Korea.
Sharaa offered a blunt explanation, an indirect confirmation of that.
"Syria is still in a state of war with Israel," he said. "And Israel has so many missiles."
The same State Department official said Syria's new arms order did not represent a contradiction of its peace overtures.
"I said that there was some new thinking with regard to peace. I didn't say . . . they were necessarily going to adopt a different posture with regard to the military and the acquisition of weaponry," he said. "It's not unheard of for some people to acquire arms even while they talk about arms control."
Critics have pointed out that the United States, for example, calls for arms control in the Middle East but continues with new military sales to its allies there.
Sharaa and Baker hinged their hopes for peace in the Middle East on a resolution of the most intractable of all disputes in the region, the question of Israel's occupation of lands claimed by the Palestinians as their homeland.
During the last week, leaders of the six gulf Arab states, plus Syria and Egypt, emphasized to Baker that there should be no double standard in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf war.
If war was waged on Iraq for its refusal to comply with a U.N. directive to get out of Kuwait, then Israel should follow the Security Council's
unfulfilled, 24-year-old directive ordering Israeli troops to withdraw from the territories it seized in the 1967 war, the Arab leaders said.
Baker pledged to Syria that the United States would "use whatever influence and good offices it might have" to achieve that goal.
"There should be no double standard," he said.
While offering a warm public welcome to Baker on his first trip to Israel, Israeli officials have vowed not to swap the occupied West Bank and Gaza strip for peace, arguing that a Palestinian state that close to their populated areas would pose an even greater security threat than they face today.
Throughout Baker's week of private meetings, he and his aides refused to offer specifics on how the United States was proposing to bring Arabs and Israelis closer to an agreement. But Baker said yesterday that progress was being made.
"It's a little premature to be . . . suggesting that somehow there is no opportunity here because we haven't had instant peace," Baker said. "Let's work at this."
Baker, who is scheduled to stay in Moscow until tomorrow, is expected to discuss the Soviet role in the post-war Middle East with President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.