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Test of Wills Seen Between Militants, Assad

Times Staff Writer

The bizarre stalemate in Beirut, where 39 American hostages were scheduled to be freed Saturday but remained captives after a last-minute snag, appears to have been caused by an extremist Muslim faction pitting itself--and four of the hostages--against the combined weight of the United States, Syria and Lebanese Shia leader Nabih Berri.

U.S. officials said they blame the delay on militants believed to be members of the pro-Iranian Hezbollah, or “Party of God"--not on Berri’s larger Amal organization or its ally, Syria.

‘Thugs and Barbarians’

“It’s not Nabih Berri who’s holding this up,” a White House official said. “It’s the thugs and barbarians who started this.”

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The result is an 11th-hour test of will between Hezbollah, which has been linked to a string of bloody terrorist attacks, and Syrian President Hafez Assad.

For two weeks, Hezbollah has reportedly held at least four of the hostages who were separated from the others apparently because they were either U.S. military personnel or had Jewish-sounding names.

Administration officials feared that the terrorist cell was holding the four as an “ace in the hole"--as a means of frustrating any negotiated agreement that did not meet their demand for the immediate release of 735 Lebanese prisoners held by Israel.

“We always thought that could be a complication,” President Reagan’s national security adviser, Robert C. McFarlane, said Saturday.

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Under the apparent agreement reached by the United States, Syria and Berri, the hostages were to be sent to Damascus on Saturday and then quickly put aboard a waiting U.S. Air Force plane. There was no explicit link to the release of the prisoners in Israel, although both U.S. and Israeli officials repeated assurances that they expected them to be freed soon.

Despite the Administration’s long-standing concern, Hezbollah’s last-minute resistance to the deal surprised all those concerned. White House spokesman Larry Speakes and Syria’s official government news agency had both announced that the hostages were on their way to freedom before it became clear that four of the Americans were missing.

It was an episode reminiscent of the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-1981, in which Iranian government officials repeatedly ordered militants to surrender control of their 52 American hostages--only to run into stony refusal from terrorists who realized that the hostages gave them political leverage.

In this case, the challenge was to Syria’s Assad, who has long attempted to exert control over neighboring Lebanon.

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Assad has used Berri and his Amal 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, which is funded by Iran and less susceptible to Syrian control.

White House officials said they expect Assad to use his formidable influence in Lebanon to force Hezbollah to give in.

“It seems to be a problem that the Syrians have,” one official said. “They have something invested in it now--prestige. . . . They are the ones who have assumed responsibility for it.”

Several Middle East experts agreed--pointing out that Assad has a history of ruthless action against those who cross him, including assassination of political enemies and the wholesale slaughter of civilians in response to a series of uprisings against his rule in the late 1970s.

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“If Hafez Assad leans on the terrorists, those hostages will be out,” said Riyad Ajami, a Lebanese Shia scholar at the Smithsonian Institution’s Wilson Center. “He doesn’t even have to spell out a warning. They know what he is capable of doing.”

But another scholar, Michael Hudson of Georgetown University, warned that an open confrontation between Assad and Hezbollah--whose gunmen have occasionally skirmished with Syrian troops in the past--could be unpredictable.

“That kind of confrontation could lead to some tragic surprises,” he said. “It could turn bloody before it’s over.”

Ironically, the impasse has put the United States in the position of openly asking Syria to act as its surrogate in Lebanon--only two years after Reagan stationed Marines in Beirut with the avowed aim of forcing Syria out of the country.

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Administration officials have long denounced Assad as a Soviet puppet and an obstacle to U.S. hopes for Middle East peace negotiations, and Syria is on the State Department’s official list of countries that export terrorism.

One senior official explained that the hostage crisis had unexpectedly thrown the United States and Syria into a community of interest, if only briefly: The United States wants the hostages freed, and Syria wants to bring the Shia extremists under its control.

Berri said Saturday that he ordered the hostages’ release delayed because he wanted a public pledge from Reagan that there would be no military retaliation for the hijacking, but U.S. and Syrian officials--as well as an associate of Berri in the United States--discounted that as a problem.

“I don’t attach much significance to the new demands,” national security adviser McFarlane said.

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“That isn’t Berri’s first priority,” agreed Smithsonian scholar Ajami, who has been in touch with Amal officials. “It’s more like an excuse. His first priority is getting control of those other four hostages.”


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