Grateful to Syria

The freeing of the kidnapped head of American University in Beirut provides welcome evidence that there are some effective communications between the US and President Assad of Syria - and that the latter is willing to be helpful to the US at least in small ways.

Dr. David Dodge had been kidnapped a year ago in Beirut by persons who at the time said they belonged to a pro-Iranian group of Shiite Muslims. If the identity of his captors is known it has not been made public; Dr. Dodge was released in good health, according to the White House

The State Department is not providing much information about either his year in captivity, or how his freedom was obtained. But a White House spokesman has said that the US is grateful to both President Assad and his brother ''for the humanitarian efforts they undertook which led to Mr. Dodge's release.''

It is important to keep in perspective the limited implications of the Assad role in this case. They do not hint at any change in Syria's refusal to pull its troops out of Lebanon. Syria considers it in its own national interest to remain in Lebanon at this time. In fact a major challenge to the US is to find some reason for Syria to want to withdraw.

But if there is no fundamental change at present in Syria's position, at least Washington and Damascus are talking. There now is a regular communciations channel between the two nations, part of Secretary Shultz's effort to develop, step by step, a long-term relationship with the Syrians. With small successes such as the Assad assistance in obtaining Dr. Dodge's release, the US hopes to deepen that relationship into one of mutual confidence, so that one day it can lead to major successes in Middle East diplomacy.

It may be a long road ahead. But the Dodge release is a good first step.

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