Iranian political intervention has brought at least a temporary lull to the violent battles in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, and has raised hope of an early end to the Soviet hostage crisis in Beirut. But it has also highlighted one of Syria's most pressing dilemmas in its efforts to pacify Lebanon. In deference to its important strategic alliance with Tehran, can Damascus afford to tolerate radical, Iranian-inspired Islamic movements on its own doorstep in Lebanon?
Some of those fundamentalist groups, both Sunni and Shiite Muslim, have links with outside forces hostile to Syria, such as Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization. They have often found themselves in conflict with the forces in Lebanon itself, which Syria is relying on in its efforts to tame the country by proxy.
The Tripoli battles are a vital case in point, and the outcome will clearly have wider implications for the rest of the country. The Sunni fundamentalist Tawheed Islami (``Islamic Unification'') movement benefited from its alliance with the PLO to impose its control over much of Tripoli before Yasser Arafat and his men were evacuated from the city in December 1983. For the past 18 days, the Tawheed has been battling for survival against a coalition of Lebanese factions put together by Syria as an instru ment for restoring its indirect control.
For Syria, it was clearly intolerable that a major city such as Tripoli should remain under the semi-autonomous control of Sunni fundamentalists, who openly advocate establishment of an Islamic republic in Lebanon.
But the Tawheed and its leader, Sheikh Saeed Shaaban, have established strong ties with Syria's strategic allies, the Iranians, who see his brand of Sunni fundamentalism as an important complement to their own Shiite revolution. Sheikh Shaaban is the only Lebanese or Syrian leader who is known to have been granted an audience with Iran's leader, Ayatollah Khomeini.
As the Syrian-backed militias inched their way forward against the Tawheed in Tripoli, the Iranians stepped in to halt the carnage. Iranian President Ali Khamenei talked for nearly an hour on the phone Tuesday with Syrian President Hafez Assad. Iran dispatched a delegation that arrived in Tripoli the same evening.
A truce was called, and the Iranian delegation accompanied Shaaban and one of his colleagues to Damascus for talks with Syrian Vice-President Abdul Halim Khaddam Wednesday. The talks were attended by leaders of Iran's closest Shiite allies in Lebanon, the Hizbullah (``Party of God'') and the Islamic Amal.
The Tripoli truce and the involvement of both Sunni and Shiite fundamentalists in the Damascus talks raised hopes that, at the very least, the people who kidnapped the four Soviet Embassy officials in Beirut Monday would refrain from killing any more of them. The body of one of the Russians was found Wednesday morning, shot through the head and dumped near a derelict sports stadium in south Beirut.
If the Iranian-mediated Damascus talks produce a settlement of the Tripoli crisis and an understanding between Syria and the Shiite and Sunni fundamentalists, the early release of the three surviving Soviet hostages may be expected. Responsibility for their abduction had been claimed by both the Islamic Jihad and the hitherto-unknown Islamic Liberation Organization. Despite the confusion, the kidnappings were clearly linked to the plight of the embattled Tawheed fighters in Tripoli.
But can Damascus afford to compromise with the Islamic revolutionaries? The abduction of the Soviets and the murder of one of them illustrate the deadly nature of the challenge the revolutionaries could pose to Syria's influence.
The Syrians have very close relations with the two big militias that control west Beirut -- the Druze Progressive Socialist Party and the Shiite Amal, both of which also have good, direct relations with Moscow. But they were powerless to prevent or remedy the abduction of the Soviet officials, despite Syrian warnings to the perpetrators. Embarrassed, Damascus Radio neglected all mention of the abduction of the Russians in its newscasts.
If the Syrians are to achieve complete control over Lebanon -- a task that has defied all previous efforts by Syria itself and by other outsiders such as Israel and the United States -- the challenges represented by the fundamentalists and by the presence of pro-Arafat Palestinians would have to be ruthlessly eliminated.
Syria's problem is that if it tries to gain complete control, either directly or through proxies, it may seriously jeopardize its vital alliance with Iran, and also with Libya, which strongly opposed the bloody but inconclusive drive against the Palestinian camps in Beirut by Syrian-backed Shiite forces in early summer.