The kidnapping of US journalist Charles Glass focuses attention again on the plight of 29 foreign hostages in Lebanon, whose fate has remained in suspension since thousands of Syrian troops entered west Beirut in late February. The hostages now include 10 Americans, six Frenchmen, three Britons, two West Germans, and citizens of Italy, India, South Korea, and Ireland.
Mr. Glass may have two advantages not enjoyed by the other hostages. His abduction is seen by the Syrians as a direct challenge to their credibility as guarantors of west Beirut security. This weekend, Syrian President Hafez Assad ordered his troops to step up their efforts to free Glass and his companions.
Further, the fact that Glass is accompanied by Ali Osseiran, son of the Shiite defense minister (and their driver), makes the abduction a pressing problem within the Shiite community and the Lebanese government.
Analysts believe the prospects for most of the hostages depend in large measure on developments in relations between Syria and Iran, and perhaps on the outcome of struggles between vying trends within the Iranian leadership.
The return of the Syrians in February raised hopes for an early release of some of the hostages. Syrian officials said they were working toward that goal.
But the hostages' fate is seen as bound up with the situation in Beirut's southern suburbs, where Iranian-backed Shiite fundamentalist factions such as the Hizbullah (Party of God), as well as the mainstream Shiite Amal movement, have their strongholds. Although Hizbullah denies involvement in kidnappings, it has been accused by some Lebanese leaders of holding hostages in the suburbs.
Syria's security plan was to include the suburbs, but it has stayed out apparently at the request of Iran, with whom it is allied against Iraq.
Yet in an effort to show some progress in freeing hostages, Syria won the release of two Saudi Arabian citizens in March. But these were believed to have been detained by Shiite families or Syria's Amal allies, not by pro-Iranian radicals.
A deluge of videotaped messages and demands from kidnap groups in March appeared to some observers to imply the kidnappers felt under pressure, but the groups fell silent in April and May.
Though no hostages have been released, some observers speculate that Syria and Iran reached an understanding that the Syrians would not be embarrassed by further abductions. If so, the kidnapping of Glass has breached or ended that understanding.
Observers speculate that Glass's kidnapping may reflect splits within the Iranian leadership itself, with radicals trying to embarrass pragmatic elements.
Al-Shiraa, the Lebanese magazine that broke the news of US arms supplies to Iran, said last week that Iran's Revolutionary Guards Minister Rafiqdoost is against kidnapping and had sent an envoy to Lebanon to work for hostage releases. But, it said, the envoy was himself kidnapped by Hizbullah at the instigation of hard-line Iranian factions.
Glass and the other hostages may thus be caught up in a tangled web involving complex rivalries and relationships on the ground in Lebanon and in Iran itself.