Beirut Crisis: Nerves Fray but Foes Help

Times Staff Writer

From the first moment, the hijacking of TWA flight 847 had a special terror. The fact that the gunmen ordered it diverted to the chaotic, violent caldron of Beirut said everything.

And by Sunday afternoon, June 16, when Ronald Reagan cut short his weekend at the Camp David presidential retreat in the Catoctin Mountains and flew back to the White House to meet with his national security advisers, it was clear that there was no hope for an early end to what had become the highest-pressure crisis of his four-and-a-half years as president.

A clear picture of the trying two weeks that followed has emerged only in the wake of the hostages' release, a triumph muted by the facts that one hostage lay dead and the United States had failed to gain the freedom of seven other Americans held captive in Lebanon, as demanded by the President.

Aid From Syria, Iran

In the end, the hostages' release was largely made possible by two of this country's most intractable foes--Syria and Iran, each acting in its own interest to speed the crisis to an end.

In the hours immediately after the TWA 727 was taken over by fanatical Lebanese Shia Muslims as it flew from Athens toward Rome, Administration national security specialists maneuvered desperately to keep the plane out of Beirut and, instead, have it immobilized in Algiers or even Damascus.

They tried to keep the plane out of Beirut, urging the Algerian and Syrian governments to let the plane land--but then prevent its taking off again--if the terrorists brought it into Damascus or Algiers. And they urged the Beirut airport to deny it permission to land there. The plane indeed went to Algiers--twice--but wound up in Beirut for a third time.

Any chance of ending the hijacking in Algiers--where a stable and sympathetic government made direct U.S. intervention at least remotely possible--had slipped away. News reports of U.S. military movements had frightened the heavily armed hijackers, senior Administration officials say, and caused them to order the plane into the air for the 1,900-mile journey back to Beirut.

Thus, by the time Reagan and his national security advisers gathered in the situation room in the basement of the White House, any chance of a quick end to the crisis had slipped away.

Navy diver Robert Dean Stethem had already been tortured and shot to death. Some of the passengers had been moved from the plane to secret locations in the slums of West Beirut, and demands had been issued for the release of 766 Shia Muslim prisoners being held in Israeli custody near Haifa. There was no chance of a military rescue.

A military option was considered "generically," a senior White House aide recalled later. "Was there in fact an option? Theoretically, yes. Politically, no."

Ronald Reagan, who came to office deriding President Jimmy Carter's handling of the Iranian hostage crisis and vowing "swift and effective retribution" against such terrorists, now faced a full-blown hostage crisis of his own.

First Week

The first week was at times confused and disorganized.

To some Administration officials it was clear within hours of the President's arrival back at the White House that their best, and perhaps only, hope of getting the hostages released was through Nabih Berri, the leader of the Shia Amal militia, who quickly assumed responsibility for the American captives. For a time, though, other senior officials saw Berri as part of the problem, not part of the solution.

"The initial attitude was very belligerent," said one official who participated in discussion of options. "The sense was that all Nabih Berri had to do was snap his fingers and the people would be released. It took some time before we understood that Berri doesn't lead, he persuades."

There were reports of shouting matches among Administration officials in this early stage.

For several days the Administration also was uncertain how it would handle the issue of linkage between the American hostages and the Shia prisoners held in Israel.

White House spokesman Larry Speakes said early in the first week that the United States had called for their release as early as April 4 when, in fact, it had not. The State Department had taken the position that the Israelis took the captives across the border in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention but it had only said it was "pleased" with the Israelis' subsequent announcement that the captives would be released.

Angry Israeli

Nevertheless, Speakes statement from the White House was interpreted in Israel as the United States attempting to bring pressure for the release of the Shia captives.

A tired Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin angrily accused the United States of "playing games" and called for the United States to publicly say what it wanted Israel to do.

"It may have been that too many people were talking from too many podiums," one Administration official now concedes.

Officials involved in the negotiations agree that the real turning point came after Syrian President Hafez Assad, favoring stability in southern Lebanon and concerned that his protege Berri not emerge a loser, entered the picture as a go-between.

By giving his personal assurances to opposing sides, on the release of both Israel's Shia prisoners and the hostages, Assad satisfied the extremists and enabled the Reagan Administration to maintain its position of refusing to link the two issues.

Besides handling the transfer of the hostage Americans from Berri's control back to U.S. authorities, Assad helped remove the final obstacle that delayed the final release a day. To placate the radical Hezbollah (Party of God) faction, which refused to let go of four of the hostages, Assad suggested that the United States reissue an old statement in which it affirmed its "longstanding support for the preservation of Lebanon, its government, its stability and security, and for the mitigation of the suffering of its people."

Persuaded Iran

Officials said Syria also prevailed upon Iranian officials to intercede with the Hezbollah terrorists, who are believed to have carried out the hijacking in the first place and who wanted a phased release of hostages and Israeli prisoners to demonstrate the linkage Reagan was laboring to avoid.

Despite the denial of linkage, two senior Israeli officials--David Kimche of the Foreign Ministry and Amiran Nir, Prime Minister Peres' special adviser on terrorism--arrived secretly in Washington in the second week of the crisis to provide liaison.

In its tactical maneuvering, the Administration sought almost from the first to convince Berri that it would make no concessions, then to isolate and pressure him into seeking a way out acceptable to the United States.

In effect, the game was to convince the ambitious but politically vulnerable Amal leader that intransigence would endanger his own future, while a face-saving capitulation might enable him to reap the political rewards he sought, emerging as the man who freed the Israeli detainees.

Call to Berri

Accordingly, on June 17--as additional U.S. warships, including the aircraft carrier Nimitz were deployed off the coast of Lebanon--White House national security adviser Robert C. McFarlane telephoned Berri and talked for 30 minutes. McFarlane emphasized that the United States would not make concessions, nor would it ask anyone else to make concessions to the hijackers.

The next day, the United States began efforts to increase pressure on Berri, contacting countries and international organizations around the world, urging condemnation of the hijacking and asking them to use their influence. It was at this point that Washington made its first contact with Syria.

At a White House press conference, Reagan reiterated that he would not make concessions. He also rejected retaliation, saying it would probably be tantamount to a death sentence for the hostages. Nevertheless, there were widespread reports that the U.S. military's Delta Force anti-terrorist team had moved to the Middle East.

By June 20, a feeling was growing at the White House that the United States was having some success in convincing Berri that it would make no concessions. Berri still held out for a simultaneous release of the U.S. hostages and the Shia captives in Israel but he had begun looking to third parties for assistance, contacting the governments of France, Austria, Switzerland and Italy.

Assad Meets Iranians

On June 23, Assad met with Iranian officials, including Parliament Speaker Hashemi Rafsanjani. U.S. officials believe Assad urged Iran to help end the crisis.

The next day Reagan canceled plans for his vacation at Santa Barbara. Berri demanded that the United States pull its warships back from the Lebanese coast before any hostage release but the President decided to let the diplomatic initiatives under way "play out" before taking any other tack.

Syria had now become the focus of attention, since other countries had turned down Berri's suggestion that they take custody of the American captives. Smoothing the path was the fact that Jerusalem and Washington, after a rocky week, had settled their communications difficulties.

Surprising the United States, normally pro-Arab India soon afterward denounced the hijacking and the holding of the hostages.

Unexpected Hitch

Unexpectedly, a hitch developed late in the game in the Administration's operation. Reagan, after meeting with hostage families in Chicago, branded the hijackers "thugs, murderers, and barbarians" who would be held to account. Diplomatic sources say Reagan's remarks in Chicago "dismayed" Berri, who thought they were aimed at him and violated an understanding that Amal would not be made a target.

The White House rushed to tell reporters, "It's not Nabih Berri who's holding this up. It's the thugs and barbarians who started this."

From there, it was a clear run to daylight--almost.

On June 29, Reagan was awakened several times during the night to be briefed. And before dawn, White House spokesman Speakes told reporters that the hostages apparently were on their way to Damascus by motorcade.

However, Hezbollah failed to deliver its four hostages, forcing the other hostages to wait all day in a school yard and then spend another night in Beirut. After more than two weeks of deadly tension, this final hitch was to be only a molehill of a problem.

In Washington the State Department, at Syria's suggestion, issued a statement reiterating its support for the preservation of Lebanon. And the next day, facing new pressure from an unhappy Syria and lacking support from Iran, Hezbollah turned its four hostages over to Berri to join the rest for a motorcade to Damascus, a flight to Frankfurt and home.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World