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Lebanon, Region : Crisis Gives Assad Boost on 2 Fronts

Times Staff Writer

Syrian President Hafez Assad, who is negotiating directly with President Reagan over the fate of 46 American hostages in Beirut, has made himself the key to the crisis for two reasons, U.S. officials and Middle East experts say--to reassert Syrian control over Lebanon, and to pressure the United States into giving him a greater role in its efforts toward Arab-Israeli peace.

Reagan’s national security adviser, Robert C. McFarlane, confirmed Friday that the two leaders have been exchanging messages on the issue.

“There has been a lot of cable traffic between the President and Assad” about resolving the crisis, McFarlane said.

Lebanese Shia Muslim leader Nabih Berri said Friday that he expected the hostages to be released after being moved to the Syrian capital of Damascus and placed in the custody of Assad’s regime.

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How Long in Syria?

Many questions remained unanswered about such a transfer: How long would the Americans remain in Damascus before being freed? Would their freedom be tied to the release of 735 Arab prisoners held by Israel, as their captors have demanded? And would the arrangement free seven missing Americans presumed kidnaped by radical Shia militants in Lebanon, as well as all 39 of the hostages seized in the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 two weeks ago?

But it is clear that moving the hostages to Damascus would mean a dramatic change in the diplomatic equation of the crisis.

Instead of being captives of several factions of Shia Muslim militants, some of them suicidal, the hostages would be in the custody of a stable--if pro-Soviet--government with which the United States has normal diplomatic relations.

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And instead of being held in Beirut, where random murder and kidnaping have become commonplace, they would be in Damascus, which has the dubious distinction of being one of the safest cities in the Middle East, thanks to the sometimes brutal rule of Assad’s secret police.

State Department officials said that they believe Assad would assume custody of the hostages only in order to free them.

“It would be in his interest to get rid of them and take the credit,” said one. “He has said he wants to be helpful. Unlike the Shias, he understands the rules of the game.”

Assad’s interest in solving the crisis is twofold, the officials and several academic experts said: It would avert a threat to his influence in Lebanon, and it offers him advantages in his long-term struggle with Israel.

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Syria has long attempted to exercise control over neighboring Lebanon, which was ruled from Damascus for centuries and is still Syria’s strategic “front yard.”

Tool of Influence

Within Lebanon, Assad has used Berri and his Amal militia organization as a tool of Syrian influence in Lebanon’s Shia community, the country’s largest single sect. But Berri has been challenged for primacy among the Shias by the more radical Hezbollah (Party of God), which is funded by Iran and less susceptible to Syrian control.

Analysts believe that Berri took responsibility for the TWA hijack hostages because he felt he could use them to win the quick release of the largely Shia detainees in Israel, and thus win applause from his militant constituency. But when the United States and Israel refused to meet the demand, Berri found himself trapped--and vulnerable to charges from Hezbollah that he had failed to achieve the hijacking’s goal.

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“Assad needs to save Berri’s skin,” a State Department official said.

In the wider context of the Middle East, Assad appears intent both on reminding the Reagan Administration of the key role Syria can play and on exploiting the tension between the United States and Israel over the hijacking.

U.S.-Israel Tension

“This thing has put the Americans and Israelis at each others’ throats, and that is a matter of no small importance to Assad,” said Michael Hudson, director of the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University.

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Moreover, “Assad has always tried to demonstrate to the United States that nothing can be done without him,” said Halim Barakat, a professor of Arab studies at Georgetown.

Barakat said that Assad ultimately hopes that he can persuade the Reagan Administration to abandon its drive for peace talks between Jordan and Israel and to turn to a new framework in which Syria would play a dominant Arab role. U.S. officials said that idea looked remote--but not unthinkable.

Secretary of State George P. Shultz and other Reagan Administration officials have scorned him as a Soviet surrogate who used terrorism to frustrate their attempt to rebuild a pro-American Lebanon from 1982 to 1984, when U.S. Marines were stationed in Beirut.

Assad rejects the idea that he is a Soviet puppet--but he has proudly taken credit for forcing the United States out of Lebanon and has actively supported Amal and groups that have used terrorism.

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Previous Warm Ties

But Assad has had warm relations with the United States before. He established a relationship of mutual professional regard with Henry A. Kissinger, secretary of state under Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford, that led to almost a decade of normal ties between the two countries, including significant U.S. economic aid.

Kissinger later lauded Assad as the most skillful negotiating adversary he met in the Middle East.

“I once told him that I had seen negotiators who deliberately moved themselves to the edge of a precipice to show that they had no further margin of maneuver,” Kissinger wrote later. “I had even known negotiators who put one foot over the edge, in effect threatening their own suicide. He was the only one who would actually jump off the precipice, hoping that on the way down, he could break his fall by grabbing a tree he knew to be there.”

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When he heard that, Kissinger wrote, “Assad beamed.”


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