Moscow's pull in Beirut. Release of Soviet hostages shows Moscow can manipulate strings Washington no longer holds
The release of three kidnapped Soviet diplomats in Beirut shows that Moscow is able to pull numerous strings there that Washington no longer holds. All indications are that the freeing of the Soviets Wednesday was the result of a special effort by Moscow's main Mideast ally, Syria, and friendly local Lebanese militias.
The Kremlin has excellent direct relationships with both the main militias controlling west Beirut -- the Druze Progressive Socialist Party and the Shiite Muslim Amal movement. Moscow was also able to enlist their active cooperation through its alliance with Syria, which has intimate relations with both militias and which also has a growing intelligence presence in west Beirut.
Through Syria the Soviets were also able to secure the cooperation of another ally of Syria, Iran, which has strong influence over Lebanon's Muslim fundamentalists, both Sunni and Shiite.
Tehran condemned the seizure of the Soviets and sent a delegation to help seek their release.
The fact that the hitherto unknown Islamic Liberation Organization gave up its hostages appears to confirm the intensity of the pressures the kidnappers were under.
Washington, by contrast, is quite unable to muster such pressures. Less than two years ago, US marines were engaged in running warfare with the Druze and Shiite militias. Washington's relations with Damascus are complicated; with Tehran, they are downright hostile.
Freedom for the Soviets does not therefore mean that the release of several kidnapped Westerners -- six Americans, four Frenchmen, and one Briton still being held in Lebanon -- has been brought any closer.
The fate of the American and other hostages may thus be bound up with the future of US-Syrian relations and with Syria's wider peacemaking efforts in Lebanon.
Observers point out that Syria, whose influence in Lebanon is growing almost daily, is pushing hard for a Lebanese peace settlement and the restoration of law and order.
The continued detention of the Western hostages may thus be something of an embarrassment to the Syrians -- especially after this week's demonstration of what can be achieved if a real effort is made.
Like the Soviets, the Western kidnap victims are almost certainly being held by Islamic fundamentalists -- probably from a different faction, the observers say. The fundamentalist groups have emerged as one of the main sources of opposition to the compromise settlement the Syrians are promoting.
Efforts by Syria and its local allies to control the fundamentalists, for their own reasons, may thus work to the advantage of the abducted Westerners.
But at present, it is hard to see the Syrians and others making the kind of concerted effort that evidently went into the freeing of the Soviet Embassy personnel, in order to release the Westerners.
The intent behind the abduction of the Soviets Sept. 30 was every bit as serious as that of the Westerners' kidnappings.
A fourth Soviet Embassy official, consular officer Arkady Katkov, kidnapped with the other three Soviets, was found killed two days later.
Shiite and Druze militias, coordinating closely with the Soviet Embassy and Syrian intelligence officers, ran security dragnets through west Beirut. Druze sources said it was only after their militia threatened to storm the kidnappers' stronghold and liberate the hostages by force that they were released.
The kidnappers had demanded that Moscow put pressure on Damascus to halt a violent drive in September by Syrian-backed militias against the Sunni fundamentalists in the northern port city of Tripoli. Under a subsequent cease-fire accord, Syrian troops entered the city to disarm all the militias.
But the Tripoli fundamentalists have since complained of Syrian favoritism toward their militia enemies.
In its statement Wednesday announcing the release of the three Soviets, the Islamic Liberation Organization called on the Syrians to respect their commitments in Tripoli.
Syria's peace efforts are gathering momentum, following the announcement that the three main Lebanese militias -- the Druze, Amal, and the Christian Lebanese Forces -- have reached an agreement on ending the conflict.
Details of the accord, worked out during more than a month of talks under Syrian auspices in Damascus, have not been officially revealed.
But the pact is reported to include agreement on measures to restore security as well as political reforms to establish a more equitable balance between Lebanon's various communities.
A national conference of political and militia leaders is expected to be called in November to endorse the agreement.
While few Lebanese expect progress to be swift or easy, optimism is rising because it is the first time the main militias have agreed to bury their differences.
The new and steadily improving relationship between Syria and the Christian militia has also encouraged cautious optimism, since for nearly a decade the Christian fighters defied Syria's efforts to stabilize Lebanon under its own wing.